In depressed times, how far will news organizations go to make a buck?
Looking at some of the things news organizations have done to make money in recent months, it's almost quaint to remember that it was once controversial for a newspaper to run an advertisement on its front page.
The New York Times and Wall Street Journal have done it. So it may be surprising to learn that a front-page ad on the Los Angeles Times \today is stirring up controversy -- not because of its placement, but because of how it looks.
Part of the front page design is a column of text which is, essentially, a fake news story about the lead character in the NBC show hyped by the ad, tonight's NBC cop drama Southland. And the ad was the NEWSPAPER's idea.
There is no byline on the story, a prominent NBC logo appears along with the word "advertisement" and the story itself is in a different typeface than the rest of the page.
Snarky critics like myself have groused about such tactics in the past, noting that readers may still confuse the promotional item with real news content -- and that the move seems designed to capitalize on such possible mistakes.
Turns out, the publisher was talked out of a larger ad that would have occupied the space normally reserved for the newspaper's lead story.
Dozens of staffers have signed a petition protesting the ad, despite the fact that the newspaper has been roiled by layoffs and buyouts; one anonymous staffer complained to Reuters he couldn't stand watching the publisher "whore out the front page."
But at a time when the LA Times owner Tribune company is in bankruptcy and many more newspaper/media companies are fighting economic collapse, there is much less hand wringing about such issues.
At the St. Petersburg Times, one of the creators of our new, controversial Mug Shots web site, Matt Waite, will be participating in an online chat at 1 p.m. today organized by the Poynter Institute to debate these questions. Because the site generates so many hits and requires almost no staff involvement to generate content, its advertising revenue will be almost pure profit. Click here to access the chat.
The site has generated lots of debate among journalism purists -- who insist the site encourages unhealthy voyeurism, provides no context and can make innocent people mistakenly arrested look guilty. Others, including this critic, say the site makes publicly available information more so, and showcases data already available in many other areas -- including other parts of the newspaper.
And other moves have sparked similar debates: In September, the St. Petersburg Times joined a growing list of newspapers that distributed the controversial DVD Obsession: Radical Islam's War Against the West to readers.
Critics, who said the DVD was a backhanded way of demonizing Muslims, questioned whether the Times would have agreed to such a distribution deal in better economic times.
I find myself remembering how some newspaper people years ago would look down on radio and TV stations for the ways they sometimes flouted journalism standards to build an audience.
Now, newspapers find themselves making similar choices as the limited supply of advertising dollars gets even smaller.
Through all these debates, two things are obvious: Part of news outlets' challenge will involve trying more of these projects in ways that don't destroy their credibility.
And these moves will spark strong arguments with few easy answers.
Welcome to the new normal.