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article imageLA Times and True/Slant show need for integrated ad models

By Michael Krebs     Apr 12, 2009 in Business
A front page advertisement made to look like a news story draws criticism for the Los Angeles Times. Meanwhile, True/Slant launches a new editorial/advertorial business model. Why integrated ad models are the way forward for journalism.
The division of church and state among journalistic environments has always been a line of contention between editorial staff members and those of their commercial counterparts. The argument among journalists and editors fall along matters of integrity and the public trust - as every news organization cites its origin in the early days of the first newspapers, designed as they were to uphold democracy and to offer objective reporting as an alternative to the manipulative newsletters that were pervasive during the railroad era.
And while the editorial argument is a strong one, the commercial side often takes a position that rides this line. A number of descriptions of this line have made it into the commercial lexicon over the years: advertorials, infomercials, custom publishing, integrated advertising, advertising supplements, custom edit, and on it goes. The commercial position is that the ink and the paper and the servers and the lights and the cameras - and the salaries - all cost money, and advertisers bring that money.
Both sides are right. So a blurred line between these divisions has long been in place. And as the economy and the state of news organizations in all media - print, television, radio, and Internet - have withered dangerously, this blurred line is becoming a standard advertising model.
The Los Angeles Times recently attracted criticism for carrying a front-page advertisement for an NBC television show that resembled a news story. The newspaper carried a similar approach a day later, according to a report in The New York Times.
The editorial side cried foul.
“You dress an ad up to look like editorial content precisely because you think it will make it more valuable,” Geneva Overholser, director of the school of journalism at the University of Southern California Annenberg School for Communication, told The New York Times. “Fundamentally, that’s an act of deception.”
The commercial side explained reason.
Citing The New York Times, "The supplement is clearly marked as an advertising supplement, said Nancy Sullivan, a Los Angeles Times spokeswoman. The bylines have 'special advertising section writer,' and the font is different from the one the newspaper uses, she said."
American corporations spend about $25 billion annually on custom publishing approaches, according to the Custom Publishing Council. Advertorial supplements are an important part of the corporate communications mix.
This importance has made its way into a new model of web journalism with the launch of True/Slant. The new site will offer journalists a unique opportunity to own their content on specialized pages, effectively creating byline brands - and entrepreneurial journalists. These byline brand ambassadors will attract readers who are interested in what the writer - as an individual journalistic voice - contributes.
But True/Slant leads with another angle. According to The Wall Street Journal, "True/Slant will run regular Web ads throughout. But, in a highly unusual move, the site plans to offer advertisers their own entire pages where they can run blogs and try to attract a network of followers. These will have the same design and features of the journalists' pages, but will be labeled as ad content." More on True/Slant can be found here.
And so this blurred line is drawn forward.
But as news organizations struggle with their business models and their identity, there is a growing understanding that the Pravda-like government-sanctioned model could be just around the corner. So continual experimentation with advertisers is likely not the kind of villainous thing that many in editorial often conjure. The devil you know is often better than the devil you don't.
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