The LA Times Finds Out Product Placement Isn't the Magic Bullet?

It's one thing being marched to the gallows by an uncaring and unappreciative public, sentenced by shifting technological and cultural habits and a few bonehead moves of your own. But it's quite another having to go to your death stripped naked as a jaybird.

Insult to injury, as another cliche goes.

That seems to be how a sizable number of L.A. Times journalists feel about a front page NBC TV show ad lipsticked up to look like a real news feature story: it's bad enough that newspapers are (ad nauseum) arguably doomed, but don't steal our dignity while you're at it, they're saying.

At a minimum, 100-plus (out of about 700 total in the newsroom) signed a petition accusing the in-bankruptcy Times management of a sin which "blurs the line between paid content and content that our reporters are producing."

Wait. I thought we desperately want someone -- almost anyone -- to actually pay for the content the newsrooms are producing (just don't put your dirty hand print all over the thing.) And in a climate where newspaper companies are rolling the existential dice, commenters on this story at several sites call the Times journalists "whiners."

Inside the newsroom mindset, though, the ad "has caused incalculable damage to this institution", the petition reads, and "makes a mockery of our integrity and journalistic standards." In language that might not otherwise make it into the paper, the petitioners accuse their publisher of "whor(ing) out the front page."

Someone should tell the Times that even the prostitution business is in a recession; Nevada just killed a proposed $5 tax on sex acts.

Since even the pimp has already been paid here, the protest can only "strenuously" object but seeks no particular redress. It seems a little like a formal, colonial-era glove slap with the Times' owners (Sam Zell and the banks) owning the only dueling pistol.

It was just nine years ago that the paper's Staples Center scandal, also considered an egregious advertising/editorial breach, drove out the top executives at the time and resulted in reams of published soul-searching. And it wasn't that long ago in our history when hard-line purists argued that even a real feature story didn't belong on Page One. But all that successful moral indignation, in the current world, feels a universe away.

In the last few years, the sacred wall concept has been shrinking pretty fast. New standards are a moving target.

The Wall Street Journal had a front page ad every day even before Rupert Murdoch bought it. As an editor, I said OK to watermark-style product pitches embedded in sports statistics and stock listings. So did a lot of my colleagues. Ads started bending inward, over and around news stories.

Stephen Colbert, who I now feel I can call Stephen, may have shown us the next red light sale when he suggested last week that we just go straight to product placement in newspapers.

That won't make the angry journalists, journalism ethicists, journalism academics or even some sub set of citizens who believe in the more traditional approach feel any better. Especially if they have to go out on stories wearing Pepsi t-shirts and a new set of Nikes.

But there is some good news at week's end for the uncorrupted.

According to New York magazine, fully five percent of New Yorkers support higher taxes to save the New York Times.

And Fox news chief Roger Ailes just bought an upstate New York newspaper for his wife. If we could just get more really rich guys (or gals) to similarly gift their spouses, we might be on to something.

Finally, if all else fails, we can go holding our noses into a thriving spin-off of newspapering: the Journalist-Consultant. Business Week columnist Jon Fine writes that companies like Abrams Research, run by former MSNBC anchor Dan Abrams, are among a growing number of firms hiring journalists to work directly for the companies whose ads are causing this commotion.

Nation! Let's cut out the middle man.