The front page of Thursday’s Los Angeles Times includes a major feature story on LAPD cop Ben Sherman, chronicling the rookie’s rough first day on the job.

It’s not unlike the kind of personality profiles that frequently grace the newspaper’s “Column One” feature. But Sherman, however, isn’t real – he’s the lead character in NBC’s “Southland,” played by thesp Benjamin McKenzie.

And the story itself isn’t really a story – it’s part of a large, six-column ad that will appear under the fold of the L.A. Times’ front page.

The fake news story – which will run in the first column, much like those regular L.A. Times stories – is in a different typeface and style than the paper’s normal content. It will also be marked as an advertisement.

But that won’t likely placate the newspaper’s critics, many of whom have taken the L.A. Times to task in the past for blurring the line between editorial and advertising.

Most famously, the newspaper drew fire in 1999 when an L.A. Times magazine issue devoted to the Staples Center was revealed to be produced under an ad revenue-sharing agreement with the venue. More recently, the same magazine was turned over to the business side of the paper.

The decision to put an advertisement on the front page with content that might be confused for a real story is sure to open a new round of criticism against the already-embattled newspaper. Yet as newspapers struggle to remain afloat, advertising methods that would have been forbidden a few years ago are now accepted as part of the new reality.

That includes front-page ads, which have begun appearing in the L.A. Times, New York Times, Chicago Tribune and other major papers.

According to NBC, the L.A. Times came up with the idea of promoting “Southland” – which takes place in Los Angeles, after all – via a front-page ad.

“We thought it was an interesting, provocative, breakthrough idea,” said NBC Entertainment marketing prexy Adam Stotsky. “Treating a fictional story in an editorial context for Angelenos inside the L.A. Times connected to our show.”

Stotsky said he knew that the L.A. Times would take some heat for the ad – and said both the network and newspaper took pains to “walk a fine line.”

“The L.A. Times has to strike a balance between creating innovative solutions for marketers and the editorial integrity of the product,” he said. “I’m sure this concept was developed not without a fair amount of discussion and debate internally. But we’ve delineated it clearly enough to signal it to the reader that it’s an ad.”

For NBC, it’s a coup: Not only will several hundred thousand L.A. Times subscribers see an ad for “Southland,” which comes from John Wells and Warner Bros. TV, when they pick up the paper Thursday morning, but the viral effect of putting this ad on the front page may resonate far beyond the actual paper readers.

Mock newspaper articles aren’t uncommon in the advertising world; direct response ads designed to look like news stories regularly appear inside newspapers, magazines and inserts like Parade. (One ubiquitous ad disguised as a fake story for fireplace mantles designed by Amish workmen seems to run in virtually every magazine these days.) Publications such as Variety have also run ads designed as fake stories (clearly marked as such as well).

Nonetheless, the front page of a major metropolitan newspaper has long been seen as sacrosanct – and Thursday’s ad is likely to strike a new debate in newsrooms and journalism circles across the country.