It's bad enough when a sports network shreds the lines between news coverage and advertising, as ESPN did Thursday night with its embarrassing, "exclusive" broadcast/sponsorship of NBA superstar LeBron James's announcement that he'll join the Miami Heat next season.
It's much worse when those lines are compromised by some of our most important daily and weekly newspapers.
On June 25, Alison Draper, acting publisher of the highly respected alt weekly the Chicago Reader, abruptly fired the paper's longtime (and excellent) editor Alison True. The Reader is now part of a chain called Creative Loafing, which leveraged heavily to buy the Reader and then proceeded to gut the staff and run the company into bankruptcy. (Disclosure: I was a publisher at CL for nine long days in 2005.)
Even in an industry in which local ownership and management is increasingly rare, it's still surprising to know that Draper lives in Dallas; she was brought in to replace well-known Chicago journalist Jim Warren. Following her announcement that she was dumping True, she told Michael Miner, her paper's senior editor and media writer, that the Reader needs an editor who can "step out of the traditional silos and look at the business through different windows."
Even Orwell might have been puzzled by that single, mixed-up sentence. What, in this instance, is a silo? How do you step outside it? And exactly where are the various windows?
Draper's language took another troubling turn when she added in that same interview that she "wouldn't 'blur' the line between editorial and advertising, but she would 'push' it." To these ears, if there's any distinction at all, pushing sounds more ominous than blurring.
In keeping with our Chicago theme, a few days later, the LA Times -- part of the bankrupt Chicago-based Tribune Company -- advertised Universal Studios' King Kong Ride in the form of a fake news section which, save for a relatively small disclaimer, looked very much like what it was wrapped around: the paper's real LATExtra section.
Universal paid $700,000 for the fake section, a price whose priciness correlates with the ad's ability to make readers think it's real news. Times publisher Eddy Hartenstein said the ad met the paper's guidelines.
The Times has struggled, to say the least, since cereal exec Mark Willes became publisher in 1997, vowing to tear down the wall between advertising and editorial. This precipitated, among other disasters, the humiliating Staples Center debacle.
On Friday the LA Times -- which has sold several other line-bending advertorials over the past year -- arguably sank farther into the abyss. Kevin Roderick, a former Times reporter who has for years provided the best coverage of the paper's decline on his must-visit LA Observed site -- tells the tale:
An ad for the new movie Despicable Me covers the top and bottom of the Los Angeles Times Calendar section -- and all of the left column...The Kenneth Turan review of Despicable Me runs inside on page 10 -- after another full-page ad for the movie. While the ad screams that it's 'this year's coolest animated comedy!,' Turan says otherwise: 'a 3-D animated feature so saccharine that sappy sentimentality is more of a danger than exposure to evil.' Funny, his second paragraph makes reference to an 'exercise in false advertising,' and he doesn't mean what the LAT ad department did to the Calendar section today.
In 1987, Ronald Reagan famously challenged Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev to destroy the Berlin Wall by saying, "Mr. Gorbachev, tear down that wall." Publishers may feel they need to throw various unorthodox revenue-raising techniques against the wall to see what sticks. It's reasonable for us to suggest that they pick a different wall than the one between advertising and editorial.