Turmoil at L.A. Times Over H’wood Advertorials

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Catfight on Spring St.: Editor John Arthur calls NBC ad “horrible.” Advertising’s Lynne Segall says editorial “approved.”

An internal battle continued to rage at the Los Angeles Times over high-priced Hollywood movie and TV ads designed to look like news articles and appearing where editorial used to be.

In an interview with TheWrap, executive editor John Arthur called a front-page ad for the new NBC show “Southland” “horrible” and “a mistake.”

Arthur, who was on vacation last week, said he was blindsided by the ad, which was labeled as an advertisement but designed to look like a news article. The editor said it was initially envisioned to go down the right side of the front page, usually the space reserved for the paper’s lead story.

“I’d been told an ad like that was coming, and before my trip I’d complained about it,” he said. “But I was told it was not imminent, that an ad of this shape was weeks or months away — May or June was mentioned to me.”

Arthur was also critical of a four-page advertising supplement about the upcoming Paramount movie “The Soloist,” which was published on Sunday under the signature Los Angeles Times banner. The movie, starring Robert Downey Jr. and Jamie Foxx, is based on a book by the Times’ own columnist, Steve Lopez and featured an interview with him.

“I thought the type font that was used in the words ‘The Soloist’ at the top was uncomfortably close to the font we use in section fronts,” Arthur said, adding that he did not know that the supplement was coming either. Lopez could not be reached for comment.
 

But Lynne Segall, vice president for entertainment advertising at the paper, retorted in an email to TheWrap: "Russ Stanton, his boss, the editor of the paper, approved both advertorial units. The ad department in this company is not in a position nor would we ever be allowed to go out in the market to sell units like this without editorial vetting and giving us  permission first." 
 

The conflict over the appropriate placement and character of ads is dividing the business side from editorial and even the print from the digital side of the paper, capturing the untenable pressures facing newspapers in the waning days of print.

Editorial staffers feel the ads betray and devalue their work, while the business side says they are necessary to keep the struggling paper afloat. Meanwhile, digital staffers say that their counterparts in newsprint need to wake up and face inevitable change.

“I’m just trying to keep the lights on here, folks,” pleaded publisher Eddy Hartenstein as he faced an angry newsroom on Thursday, according to several people who were present.

Editor Russ Stanton had made his displeasure known to Hartenstein, but in his newsroom speech on Friday the publisher would not promise that a “Southland”-style ad would not happen again.

The conflict over the ads captures the internal divisions within newspapers as they struggle to survive. The Los Angeles Times is owned by Tribune Co., which is currently in bankruptcy, and the paper has been through several rounds of layoffs since Sam Zell bought it in 2007.

Hartenstein said the paper made “six figures” in revenue for the front-page "Southland" ad.

A movie executive said that a typical volume price for four such pages would run $280,000. A Times executive said that figure was low for "The Soloist" deal, which included a contest, ads on L.A. Times sales racks and a component with KTLA.

 

The deal was negotiated last year, back when "The Soloist" was meant to be released in time for Oscar consideration. Paramount pushed the release date back to April 24, 2009.

In both cases, the studios involved said that the Times had initiated the ad sale.

Advertising supplements like the “Soloist” section are nothing new — the Times ran a similar one for the 2006 film “The Black Dahlia.” But for a staff that’s been through four editors-in-chief in five years and watched circulation decline to 739,000 from a high of 1.1 million, any perceived encroachment of advertising into editorial territory seems more ominous.

Many inside and outside the paper have responded as if the soul of the Los Angeles institution were at stake, with the ads representing a slide toward the abyss of editorial irrelevance.

“Even though you can point at the way the content was labeled as advertising, I think it was licking the razor,” said Marty Kaplan, director of the Norman Lear Center at the USC Annenberg School of Communication. “In the end, a paper is about a relationship with its readers, and that includes being trustworthy and not attempting any kind of deception.

But a rising counter-chorus, particularly from those who work mainly on the web and don’t deal with the print product, suggested that these sorts of  “innovations” are not the death knell of the paper — they’re what could save it. “Creative” advertising that blurs the line with editorial is, many pointed out, a daily occurrence in online media, and common in magazines.

“I think this is inevitable,” said an individual on the business side of the Times who declined to be identified. “Newspapers need to think more like interactive sales and marketing organizations which gives them more freedom with types of advertising. For years, Yahoo and AOL’s front pages have had cars driving across the home page, or colors that go with the advertisers, to communicate something around the ad itself.”

The “Soloist” trend concerned many because it presented itself as an alternative to editorial. Indeed, it turned out that Tilmes’ Calendar’s staff had been considering a “Soloist” package for its Sunday cover story. That had been moved for other reasons, but it gave some editors pause.

While the NBC ad has drawn more anger because of its prime front-page location, it could be argued that it was done in a spirit of playfulness, at least — it was about pretend cops, not real ones.

The “Soloist” supplement, in contrast, was about an actual movie and the real-life people who made it, and it earnestly emulated the kind of articles a real features staff would produce.

For their part, Hollywood publicity executives were delighted with the result — and surprised that anyone had an objection to it.

“The alliance with the L.A. Times made sense because of the subject matter,” said one Paramount executive. “It is after all a story about Steve Lopez, columnist with the L.A. Times, not TheWrap, the New York Times, etc.  The film takes place almost entirely in L.A.”

Meanwhile, the mistrust between the business and editorial sides of the paper shows no signs of going away. Assistant Managing Editor for Arts and Entertainment Sallie Hofmeister and Arts and Entertainment Editor Craig Turner met with Hartenstein to talk him out of running the front-page ad along the right, said two individuals familiar with the events. Instead it appeared on the left, below the fold.

But some said these decisions and others like it had already eroded a once-noble pillar of journalism. “The question is: What’s worth saving?” said Kaplan. “The L.A. Times is a formerly great institution, arguably a great brand. But it has alienated the people in its community who used to count on it.”