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Fake front page brings paper Disney dollars, debate

By Alan Duke, CNN
Johnny Depp's face greeted Los Angeles Times readers on Friday.
Johnny Depp's face greeted Los Angeles Times readers on Friday.
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Los Angeles Times' "Alice in Wonderland" ad uses two real stories published last month
  • Tough economy forces newspapers to tear down ethics wall, expert says
  • One estimate has ad costing more than $100,000
RELATED TOPICS

Los Angeles, California (CNN) -- At first glance of Friday's Los Angeles Times, you might think the Mad Hatter has taken over the newspaper.

Johnny Depp's colorful character in Disney's new film "Alice in Wonderland" dominates a faked front page, which includes the paper's traditional flag and two stories that appeared in the paper last month.

Los Angeles Times spokesman John Conroy said the "cover-wrap" was an "unusual opportunity to stretch the usual boundaries and design an innovative ad designed to create buzz."

Roy Peter Clark, a senior journalism scholar at the Poynter Institute, said tough economic times and lower ads sales have forced newspapers to tear down the ethics wall that separated a paper's front page from advertisers.

"The wall became in recent years a fence, but the Los Angeles Times has created a swinging gate," Clark said.

"What offends my traditional sensibilities is the notion that you would be willing to deceive the reader into thinking that this was the actual front page," Clark said.

Although Conroy said readers would not be confused by the fake front, several journalists in CNN's Los Angeles bureau did not immediately realize that the real front page was inside.

A Times reader who works for a movie marketing company in Hollywood said he felt deceived by the ad. He asked not to be identified because his company, which was not involved in the Disney campaign, deals with the newspaper.

"We propose these kinds of ads all the time but have never gotten them approved," he said. "I don't always agree with what we do."

He estimated that the ad would cost "well over $100,000."

Conroy would not disclose the price, but he said, "Our front page section is our most valued real estate. The ad was priced accordingly."

The use of real newspaper stories, published previously in the newspaper, to make the ad appear to be a real front page is another issue, Clark said.

"I'm particularly nervous about them running fake stories that are really real stories," he said. "That seems like a misappropriation of the journalism in the newspaper."

An online search revealed that the article on the left column -- headlined "To take reins on health proposal" -- was a slightly altered version of a story written by Tribune Co. Washington reporter Noam Levey. It was published February 18.

The second article, appearing on the right column of the Disney ad, was headlined "Major Afghan Figure Caught." The original story was published February 19, with the bylines of Times foreign correspondent Laura King and Moscow bureau chief Alex Rodriguez.

"If I had written one of those stories, I would be pissed," Clark said.

CNN has received no response from e-mails and calls to the three journalists.

Although they may not be pleased with their work being used in a movie ad -- without the byline -- they have jobs while many of their co-workers have been laid off.

The Tribune Publishing Co., the paper's parent, has ordered several rounds of staff cuts at its newspapers and bureau in recent years. Some have left in protest of changes in editorial practices aimed at boosting revenue, Clark said.

"There's been one editor after another that's walked out the door because they didn't want to cave in to pressure from the top to do the wrong thing," Clark said.

What he might have objected to five years ago, he could now accept it helps papers survive, Clark said. But not if it confuses editorial content with ads, he said.

"Every time I see a big ad in my local newspaper I send up a little cheer," he said.

When HBO paid the newspaper for a wrap-around ad last summer, for the vampire series "True Blood," it was not mixed with the flag or editorial content.

The Los Angeles Times drew criticism in April when it sold NBC the right column of its front page, where a lead story is normally placed. The network used the space to advertise the debut of its "Southland" series.