The Walt Disney Company paid roughly $700,000 to the Los Angeles Times for a front page ad for its upcoming "Alice in Wonderland" movie, a source at the newspaper confirmed to The Wrap.
Readers of the LA Times last Friday morning had to flip to the second page to read the day's headlines, while a multicolored picture of Johnnie Depp, dressed as the Mad Hatter, obscured two stories on health care and the war in Afghanistan.
The editorial board at the LA Times opposed the ad, but the decision was ultimately made by the newspaper's business executives, according to anonymous sources at the paper who spoke to The New York Times.
"Obviously, it was not my decision," said Russ Stanton, the top editor at the newspaper.
"We worked very closely with Disney to come up with an exceptional and distinctive way to help them open 'Alice in Wonderland,'" said the Times' spokesman, John Conroy. "It was designed to create buzz, and to extend the film's already brilliant marketing campaign."
While full-page ads on newspaper websites have become a familiar obstacle for readers navigating the news online, the printed front-page has traditionally been a sacred space for news, off-limits to outside advertising.
While the Disney deal is the most high-profile, not to mention expensive, ad the LA Times has run on its front page, it is not the first. Last year, the newspaper was criticized for running another full-page ad for NBC's "Southland," which blurred the line between article and advertisement.
The ensuing controversy over what many perceived as a breach in editorial ethics eventually led to executive editor John Arthur leaving the newspaper.
"It's a pretty dangerous road to go down for any news organization to actually sell advertising that covers up your news reporting," said Robert Niles, a former journalism professor at the University of Southern California, at the time. "It really shows a lack of respect for the audience and a lack of confidence in your editorial product."
Last January, The New York Times announced it would begin selling display advertising on its front page, in what the paper described as the "latest concession to the worst revenue slide since the Depresssion." The Times, as well as The Wall Street Journal, currently print ads on the bottom sections of their front page.
Despite the controversy, it seems highly unlikely that this will be the last front page ad printed by newspapers. With news of the large payout for the "Alice in Wonderland" ad leaking to the public, such publicity stunts clearly offer more revenue to an industry desperately in need of it.
The LA Times, for one, is clearly not dismissing such a move in the future. "We're always looking for interesting ways for advertisers to distinctively market," said Conroy. "So we're open to it."