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Crossing the Line

A Los Angeles Times Profit-Sharing Arrangement With Staples Center Fuels a Firestorm of Protest in the Newsroom--and a Debate About Journalistic Ethics

December 20, 1999|DAVID SHAW | Times Staff Writer

Several present and former Times and Times Mirror executives, using strikingly similar language, said that Downing is often certain that she is right, despite her inexperience in newspapers; without more experienced hands willing to challenge her, they say, a blunder like the Staples deal was inevitable. Indeed, Willes said to reporters shortly after the controversy broke, what happened in the Staples affair was "exactly a consequence of having people in the publisher's job who don't have experience in newspapers . . . If you don't have people with experience, you'll have people who don't understand the issues until they're made to understand the issues. That's why we need more conversation" between the business and editorial departments at the newspaper. (A poll published this month in Editor & Publisher magazine found that 75% of the publishers surveyed "strongly agreed" or "somewhat agreed" that "People entering newspaper publishing from other businesses lack an understanding of editorial ethics.")

Journalists' Values

Downing doesn't minimize her lack of newspaper experience. She is obviously intelligent, and Willes says that she is "more of a learner than almost any executive I've worked with."

But Downing says that she doesn't understand "this need to hang somebody because they're on the learning curve," and she says she can't believe that every journalist "knew all the right things to be a really good journalist . . . their very first day on the job. I believe you cannot find a person in the newsroom who hasn't made a mistake or 10 or 20 along the way."

For the Record
Los Angeles Times Monday December 27, 1999 Home Edition Part A Page 3 Metro Desk 2 inches; 39 words Type of Material: Correction
Investment conference--Participants in the Philadelphia Inquirer investment conference are selected by members of the paper's newsroom staff but, contrary to what was reported in The Times last Monday, they are invited by Morningstar, the co-sponsor of the conference.

Downing is right, of course. And Editor Michael Parks points out that while journalists do tend to have values that "would not be natural in a business environment," he thinks that people who join newspapers from business and other non-journalistic arenas can develop those values and "come to love journalism and what newspapers do, the role they play in society." Journalists, he says, are not born but shaped by their families, their schooling and their life experience.

Many journalists seem convinced, however, that there is something inside them that makes them journalists.

"You're not turned into a journalist, you pop out that way. It's in your veins," says Aaron Curtiss, former editorial page editor of The Times edition in the San Fernando Valley who is now working in advertising at the paper as part of a new program to teach people about different departments.

That may sound a bit romantic, but even so, rookie reporters or even veteran reporters do not put stories in the paper. Editors do. On occasion, of course, a reporter can fool an editor--or all the editors--as Janet Cooke did at the Washington Post in 1981 with her Page 1 story on "Jimmy," an 8- year-old heroin addict who turned out to be nonexistent, a figment of her imagination. Acts like Cooke's are rare, though, and she did it only once. Then she was fired. The vast majority of the time, a reporter who makes a mistake--intentionally or inadvertently, on his first day or in his first month or his first year or later--has several layers of experienced editors between him and publication. A rookie publisher has no such safety net. The publisher is the final decision-maker. On-the-job training is risky when the trainee is the boss. But the boss usually has more job security.

Nevertheless, Downing clearly resents the suggestion that she is hostile to dissenters and that the Staples fiasco might have been averted if several experienced newspaper people on the business side hadn't left.

"The . . . premise that somehow the senior team is not flush with newspaper experience simply isn't accurate," she says, and she ticks off the experience of several members of that team. Moreover, she says: "The people who are on my team are willing to stand up and be counted."

Did the members of that business-side team know about the profit-sharing agreement?

"You'll have to ask them, but my assumption is they all knew," she says.

Apparently, none of them told her it was a mistake.

CHAPTER TWO / The Debate

The signing ceremony for the founding partner agreement between The Times and the L.A. Arena Co. took place Dec. 17, 1998, at Staples Center's temporary offices on the 23rd floor of a building overlooking the center, which was still under construction. Soon, discussions at the paper were proceeding along several separate tracks.

Completely independent of the founding partner negotiations--indeed, initially unaware of them--Sports Editor Bill Dwyre and his top assistant, Rick Jaffe, had already begun talking about how the paper should cover the opening of a big, new arena downtown. Now, with the contract signed, the business side of the paper started discussing how to fulfill the profit-sharing obligation.

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