Which is what happened when former state attorney general John Van de Kamp was asked by Vernon City Administrator Mark Whitworth to talk to a local newspaper about proposed city reforms. Van de Kamp, who was hired by the city to improve its image, later discovered the reporter wasn't a reporter and the story wasn't a story. It was an "advertorial," better known as a paid advertisement.
The ad, which can be seen here, is made-up to look like a news story, complete with photos, columns and a byline. The ad ran in several Los Angeles Newspaper Group (LANG) publications, including the Pasadena Star-News, Los Angeles Daily News, and Long Beach Press-Telegram.
From the LA Times:
Van de Kamp said the city arranged for him to be interviewed by a reporter. But officials did not tell him it was for a large, full-color advertisement touting the virtues of the embattled city. He said he didn't know about the ad until he saw it in Pasadena Star-News on Thursday morning.
"I'm not here to…flak for the city," Van de Kamp said. "We're out here trying to do a straightforward, objective job. So that format is a problem for me."This isn't a case where a government agency bought space from the paper and then created its own promotional ad. Instead, the newspaper's advertising department hired a writer to "report" on Vernon's supposed reform agenda and then ran the fake story in a way that misleads readers into thinking it went through the normal editorial process. Adding to the confusion, the byline belongs to Edward Barrera, a former editor and reporter in the LANG chain.
Asked about the confusion over the ad, Barrera told the Times that he never identified himself as a reporter to Van de Kamp. He elaborated in an email to me:
I get why the Times asked the question. Someone should have told Van de Kamp (including, probably, me). But it was a simple mistake. This was a generic and transparent promotional Q and A. It's why my name is on it.Why would a newspaper even consider such an ethically fraught service? The money cannot be worth the negative publicity and newsroom hair pulling. And if Vernon is truly on the path of reform, a real reporter could do a real story about that. Thus far, LANG's newsrooms have done little reporting of any kind about Vernon, save an uncritical Star-News column about a state plan to disband the city.
(Full disclosure: I worked for the Star-News as a reporter and later served as an editor in the San Gabriel Valley alongside Edward Barrera.)
*I should note that this isn't my first experience with a LANG advertorial. In the early 2000s, while working at the Claremont Courier, I broke a story about mismanagement at the Three Valleys Municipal Water District. The Los Angeles Times followed up on the story and ended up funding a public records lawsuit. The LANG chain, represented by the Inland Valley Daily Bulletin, largely ignored the story, even though a reporter there had the goods. However, Three Valleys did buy several promotional ads in LANG papers for tens of thousands of dollars.