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Cooperation Within Times Viewed With Trepidation

Publisher says interdepartmental initiatives will foster journalistic success. But many in newsroom fear intrusion.

March 30, 1998|DAVID SHAW | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Steve Wasserman gripped the speaker's lectern with both hands and peered out at the audience of Los Angeles Times advertising and marketing personnel.

"You," he said, "are my people."

But Wasserman is not a member of The Times' advertising or marketing departments. He is the editor of the paper's Sunday Book Review.

That's what made his message so remarkable--and in about 90 seconds, it would become even more remarkable.

It was Dec. 3, 1997, four months before The Times would sponsor its third annual Festival of Books, and The Times' advertising and marketing staffs were gathered for a pep rally. For almost an hour, speakers had been exhorting them to sell corporate co-sponsorships at $15,000 to $200,000 apiece to help defray the costs of the admission-free festival--and to lure advertisers into the Book Review. Now it was Wasserman's turn, and he began by linking the festival--a huge success in its first two years--to the historically ad-poor Book Review.

After a dramatic pause, Wasserman said he was prepared to do something that would surprise his staff--not to mention the advertising director, the editors and the publisher of the Los Angeles Times.

"I will write a check for $1,000 from my personal checkbook to the person who sells the [next] $200,000 festival sponsorship," he said.

It was an extraordinary gesture, all the more so because it came at a time of great uneasiness at The Times. Mark Willes, chairman and CEO of The Times' parent company, Times Mirror, had taken over as publisher of the paper less than three months earlier, and Editor Shelby Coffey III had quit shortly thereafter amid industrywide speculation over Willes' announced intent to "use a bazooka, if necessary, to blow up the wall" that had traditionally separated the news department from the advertising, marketing and other business departments.

Outside the cloistered world of journalism, cooperation between different departments in a company is commonplace. But most reporters and editors have long felt that only by being completely separated (and insulated) from the business side of their newspapers would they have the freedom they need to provide readers with honest and complete coverage of critical issues, even when that coverage might adversely affect the financial well-being of the newspaper and its advertisers.

Thus, many journalists at The Times and elsewhere worry that the paper's editorial integrity will be eroded by Willes' unprecedented assault on "The Wall" with initiatives ranging from the call for profit and loss statements for each section of the paper to the appointment of "general managers" from the business side to serve as "partners" for the editors of each section. Yet here was Wasserman courting ad salespeople, offering them cash incentives from his own bank account.

As it turned out, the ad department hasn't sold another $200,000 sponsorship and Wasserman hasn't had to part with his $1,000. But if he can take an active role in advertising and marketing campaigns, won't ad salespeople and marketing executives feel free to take an active role in the newsroom? Wouldn't that compromise the editorial independence of the paper?

Willes says no. He insists that greater interdepartmental cooperation--and a more focused, aggressive approach to marketing, promoting and selling advertising for the paper--will yield significantly greater revenues that can then be used to hire more reporters and editors, add more space and new sections and enable the paper to produce even better journalism, all with no loss of editorial independence.

"It would be a travesty and a tragedy and a personal embarrassment to me," he says, "if we ever did anything that in any way harmed or diminished the paper in terms of reputation or impact or quality."

Restructuring and Reassurances

It's too early to analyze the impact of Willes' initiatives. Many aren't in place yet. The paper has only four of the anticipated six to eight general managers who will work with section editors to devise marketing, advertising and editorial strategies. But it's worth noting that while Times operating profits increased 31% last year--the third-most profitable year in the paper's history in sheer dollars--The Times' editorial expenses for 1998 increased less than 3% over 1997. Although Willes has repeatedly said that a superior editorial product is the most important component in his plan for The Times' improved financial performance, section editors were actually asked last October to cut their 1998 budgets by 1% from 1997, exclusive of new initiatives.

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