The Great Media Blurs: Ad, news, or shmooze?

WHEN YOU LISTEN TO THE millennial pundits describing the media and entertainment industry, it’s remarkable how often the word “blur” comes up. The line between news and entertainment has become a blur. The line between advertising and editorial has become a blur. The line between the real and the unreal has become a blur.

Does all this blurriness stem from New Year’s Eve excess, or is there a syndrome out there that needs further scrutiny?

Judging from the imbroglio that overtook the Los Angeles Times recently, the “blur” syndrome apparently can cause some nasty side-effects. What seemed to be a minor glitch has set off such severe rumblings that the Times bravely saw fit to publish a 14-page special section titled “Crossing the Line” to explain the origins of its “firestorm.”

Here’s what started it all: In publishing the Oct. 10 edition of its Sunday Magazine, the newspaper failed to disclose that what was presented as straightforward journalism was in fact advertorial. Its subject was the Staples Center, a new sports and concert facility, in which the Times was a financial partner. In fact, the newspaper had agreed to split the $600,000 profit from that edition of the magazine with the owners of the new arena.

When the nature of the deal was finally disclosed, the newsroom was up in arms. Kathryn Downing, new to her job as publisher, issued an apology, an esteemed former publisher, Otis Chandler, issued a denunciation, and the editors issued their special section describing “a tangled tale of ignorance and arrogance.”

The special section, written by the Times’ feisty media reporter, David Shaw, also delved into other “gray areas.” There were special sections in the works, it seemed, that presented potential conflicts.

In one such section on the California Speedway, for example, operators of that facility would help sell ads and even receive commissions (the section was subsequently canceled).

THEN THERE WAS THE QUESTION of conferences: The newspaper carried some 13 stories on the recent Investment Strategies Conference, which the Times sponsored. Was it appropriate for the Times to mobilize its news staff to hustle its own wares?

If there was a growing “blur” at the Times, Shaw argued, it stemmed from the initiative of Mark Willes, chairman of the Times Mirror Co. and former publisher of the newspaper, in challenging the “wall” that existed between the news and business sectors. To Willes, this wall was inhibiting profits.

In issuing his mandate, however, Willes did not anticipate its consequences. The upshot, as Shaw put it, was that “Times journalists now fear that the very essence of their work — the bond of trust between them and their readers — has been jeopardized.”

A key cause, to be sure, was the inexperience of the principals involved. Downing, the new publisher, has a background in legal publishing while Willes came from a cereal company. Their appointment by the vast Times Mirror Corp. was in keeping with the mantra of the multinationals that key executives all had “transportable skills.” Translated, that means they know the numbers and how to hype them.

Hence atop every corporation there sits a functionary who is empowered to set a number for every unit of every company. That functionary may in fact have no knowledge whatsoever of the market conditions affecting that entity and no interest in the product it produces. Nonetheless, everyone dances to his tune.

It is this mindless pressure to pump up profits that increasingly distorts the way businesses operate and creates a sort of pathology of pain among management.

To Willes, the way to inflate profits was to force-feed an awkward bond between editors and ad salesmen. While this effort may have yielded short-term gains, it also resulted in an embarrassing chain of events that compromised the newspaper’s integrity.

In short, it added to the Blur.

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