Today's front page of the Los Angeles Times.
Some are calling this despicable and only partly as a pun. Los Angeles Times publisher Austin Beutner approved placing an ad for the upcoming Universal movie "Minions" within the front page nameplate of the Times. Three minions, characters introduced to movie audiences in the "Despicable Me" films, cavort over the LA Times logo (or masthead, some call it.) I'm told the ad was approved over the objections of at least some top editors and marks a first for the LA Times, which has been more willing than most newspapers to turn over the front page to movie ads, but up to now has not sold the actual Times logo. "Previous publishers were not willing to go there," said a senior-level newspaper source with knowledge of the negotiations.
The same source says the deal cost Universal about $300,000 and includes ad minions in other sections of the paper, but not in those sections' nameplates. That's reportedly a big buy for Universal, which has all but stopped advertising its movies in the Los Angeles Times print edition. "They never spend that kind of money in the Times," said the source, who says Universal is actually counting on controversy over the Times decision to help generate buzz about the movie, which opens July 10.
None of the big Hollywood studios spend important dollars in the Times print paper anymore, except at awards time, apparently concluding after years of declining and aging readership that their customers aren't really LA Times print readers. That's a major revenue issue for Beutner — now and going forward. The printed paper drives news decisions less and less — for example, there was no coverage of the Charleston church shooting in morning papers because the A section deadline is early and national news is no longer allowed in "California" — but print is still a crucial source of ad revenue. The studios aren't the only big ad buyers to flee. The ad inventory in the print paper some days is just unbelievably thin. In the colony of current and past LAT staffers, a lot of heads were shaking when an A section a couple of months ago dropped below 12 pages for the first time that anyone could remember. On some days, most of the ads in the Los Angeles Times appear to be unpaid house ads.
"I've been keeping informal track and the LAT's biggest advertiser now is — the LAT," a former senior editor told me recently. In a recent print paper, the editor observed, there were 42 pages and 27 house ads. "That's stunning and unsustainable."
The decision to place ads in the Times front page logo met with strenuous internal objections, I'm told. Beutner reportedly told at least one editor that he knew it would not be a popular call in the newsroom. On Twitter this morning, author Daniel A. Olivas — whose books get reviewed in the Times — tweeted his distaste to Beutner.
Beutner does tweet, but he hasn't responded that I have seen. His only Twitter post in the past month has been to post a quote from an op-ed championing diversity by Jose Antonio Vargas, who Beutner hired to create and run #EmergingUS, a new Times desk on race and multiculturalism.
I didn't realize that Oprah Winfrey was 'black' and Julia Roberts was 'white' until I arrived here. http://t.co/B4PsgvtBEQ— Austin Beutner (@austinbeutner) July 3, 2015
Personally, I'm not sure this development is all that disturbing. The LA Times stopped respecting its visual brand and sold it to movie marketers a long time ago. (All big papers face the same kind of financial challenges, but no other respected papers go as far as the LAT to give advertisers new leeway. Running story at LA Observed; see the links below.) On this, you could imagine Beutner et al saying it's just the print paper. They need the money, and ads are running away from print, although that might be fed in part because the Times doesn't take that side of its brand as seriously, as readers move increasingly to digital.
For me, I still pay to get the paper delivered, and someone in my family looks at it most mornings. I look at the print paper less and less and less, and if the LA Times website was better organized I would go to print even less often ‐ as it is, I have to check the physical paper to see if and how the Times has covered something, because a news junkie can't easily get that information off LATimes.com. My break with print extends way beyond the LAT — I read almost everything in digital form now, especially news, and prefer it for several reasons. The Times selling ads on its nameplate doesn't affect me, but I do think it adds to the sense that the print paper is increasingly an afterthought.
If you are inclined to be bothered by soiling the nameplate with movie characters, this might disturb you too. The Times has managed to squeeze in quite a bit of "Minions" content in its pages, leading up to the film's release and the ad buy. In January the paper's website embedded a Super Bowl ad for Minions. In April, the Times reported on Pantone naming a new color Minion Yellow. On June 1, the LAT's Company Town blog did a story about Minions ads showing up on Amazon delivery boxes. Also in June, the LAT's fashion blog did a post on how top names in fashion were shilling for Minions. And just before the holiday weekend, the Times' gossip blog reportedly breathlessly that Sandra Bullock rocks 'Minions' heels for charity at Los Angeles premiere.
* Updates: I clarified some of my meaning at the bottom end as this topic took off Sunday on social media. Turns out there are quite a few people who follow the media in LA who are bothered by the LAT going here. Also a smaller cohort who say if it pays for reporters go for it. (What about if it pays for new VPs and more newspaper acquisitions like in San Diego?) The conversation continues on my Facebook page and at LA Observed on Twitter.
Previously on LA Observed:
Notice the difference in Grand Theft Auto ad treatment
Unfortunate ad placement o' the day
Next L.A. Times ad stunt for 'Law and Order: Los Angeles'
Can you spot the real LAT front page ad?
LAT's Hollywood ads get more attention *
Front page ads coming to LAT *