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L.A. Times Prints Ad Resembling Story on Front Page

The Los Angeles Times lent some credibility to the phrase that you can't believe everything you read in the newspaper Thursday when it ran an advertisement resembling a news story on its front page.

The ad for the new NBC program "Southland" covers half a vertical column below the fold. It's labeled as an advertisement at the top but occupies space previously reserved for news. The text is next to a banner ad for the show at the bottom of the page.

University of Southern California journalism professor Bryce Nelson said it appeared to be the first time in recent history that an ad resembling a news story appeared on the front page of a major U.S. paper — something once featured in 19th-century papers.

"This kind of highly intrusive front page ad has not been a feature of American journalism in recent decades," said Nelson, a former national correspondent for the Times.

Like all newspapers, the Times is struggling to stay afloat as advertising revenues crater, readers cancel their subscriptions and a growing number of people get their news free on the Internet.

Aside from those industry woes, the Times' parent Tribune Co. has filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy.

The Times said the ad was designed to stretch traditional boundaries.

"The delivery of news and information is a rapidly changing business and the Los Angeles Times is continuously testing innovative approaches," a newspaper statement said. "That includes creating unique marketing opportunities for our advertising partners."

Times spokeswoman Nancy Sullivan declined to say how much the paper was paid. NBC Universal spokesman Cory Shields did not immediately return a call seeking comment.

Banner ads across the bottom of front pages have become common as newspapers seek new revenue sources. Advertisements made to look like news copy are also common on inside pages of many newspapers.

The Times ad that runs below its daily Column One feature purports to be a first-person account of a ride-along with a rookie policeman.

The text is in a different font than the news stories, and a black border separates it and the banner ad from the rest of the page.

"This is a loony idea," said Ken Doctor, a news industry analyst for consultancy Outsell Inc. "It blurs the line for what you can trust in the LA Times and what you can't."

The Los Angeles Times is no stranger to controversy over blurred lines between news and promotion.

The paper was embarrassed in 1999 by revelations that managers secretly approved a deal to publish a special issue of its weekend magazine about the new Staples Center and split ad revenue from the publication with the sports venue.

Critics said the deal strained the paper's credibility with its readers.

Nelson said readers will also likely be confused by Thursday's TV show ad.

"I've grown resigned to front page ads in the Los Angeles Times and the New York Times, but I think this goes a good deal further," he said.