In the good old days, newspapers were supposed to keep government honest, but the shoe appears to be on the other foot, at least in Los Angeles. In an unprecedented move, the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors has sent an open letter to Tribune Co. CEO chastising the company and asking that it cease publishing ads on the cover of the Los Angeles Times, which are intended to look like editorial content.
Although the city has no power to force the newspaper to comply, the reprimand -- asking the LAT to "stop selling its front pages to advertisers, especially in such an offensive and alarming manner," which "makes a mockery of the paper's mission" -- is deeply embarrassing by the standards of most journalistic organizations.
The letter from the Board of Supervisors adds that "the cost of this distasteful practice to the people of Los Angeles County is far greater than any short-term gains by the Tribune Company."
The occasion of the letter was the latest cover advertising stunt, which saw LATExtra (which covers breaking news) wrapped with a four-page ad section designed to look like the actual cover of the section, promoting the new King Kong attraction at Universal Studios Hollywood. The wrap bore a small disclaimer that it is an advertisement, but was otherwise a fairly convincing fake cover reporting the misdoings of a giant ape loose in the city.
It seems unlikely that the letter will dissuade Tribune's management from their strategy of selling advertising in unusual, eye-catching ways. The last few years have brought increasingly aggressive and unorthodox ad campaigns to the newspaper. In March, the LAT allowed an eye-catching cover wrap to promote Disney's "Alice in Wonderland," starring Johnny Depp as the Mad Hatter. The wrap featured Depp's character's face, superimposed on what appears to be the front page of the newspaper -- but was actually a fake. Stanton and other editors protested the ad, but were overruled by the business side of the LAT.
The conflict between editorial and business operations at the LAT has been long simmering. In 2009, management took heat for allowing an ad resembling an article on the front cover of the newspaper. The ad, for NBC's new LA police drama "Southland," was run over the objections of editor Russ Stanton and a dozen other senior editors. In an interview with TheWrap, LAT executive editor John Arthur called the front-page ad "horrible," "unfortunate" and "a mistake."
In the summer of 2008, the original Los Angeles Times Magazine was closed and replaced by a new publication, with a new editorial staff, entirely under the control of the Los Angeles Times Media Group. In short, control of the magazine came from the business -- not editorial -- side.
For ethical reasons, Stanton requested that the Media Group not call itself the Los Angeles Times Magazine, since it is not under the control of the newspaper's editorial staff. The new publication was given a slightly different name: L.A. Los Angeles Times Magazine. However, John T. O'Loughlin, the executive vice president and CMO for target media at the LAT Media Group, has referred to the magazine as a "flagship publication" of the newspaper.