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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

At 5 p.m. on March 4, Tims senior vice presidents James Helin and John McKeon conducted a meeting in McKeon's seventh-floor office in an effort to reach some decisions. One or two other men from the business side were also there, as were, these participants say, Managing Editors John Lindsay and John Arthur. Arthur remembers being there; Lindsay says that he was focused on another of his duties at the time--supervising the redesign of the paper--and can't specifically recall such a meeting. But he says others have told him he was at a meeting about Staples coverage "some time in March, and I assume that's true." Most of the other participants remember his presence--and his protests--at this one.

What was talked about at that meeting? That's obviously a critical question, and that's where things get sticky. All the participants say there was no printed agenda, and there are no minutes of the meeting. But Helin says that profit-sharing was "mentioned very clearly and openly." That, after all, was one of the main purposes of the meeting as far as the business side was concerned: to determine which of the various publishing alternatives would best satisfy the commitment to Staples. McKeon agrees . . . sort of.

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.

"I can't tell you that I'd put my hand on a stack of Bibles and swear to you that that happened," he says. But he thinks it probably did come up because he recalls asking Helin, " 'What are we responsible for?' That's where $300,000 came up."

Inattention to Details

Most participants agree that copies of the 23-page founding partners agreement, with its clause about "joint revenue opportunities" were either available or handed out at the meeting. Arthur says that he doesn't recall seeing the contract. Lindsay says that he remembers receiving it but didn't look at it. "I don't pay much attention to the details of a business contract," he says, "because I don't work on the business side."

That would conform with Willes' analysis of how the whole Staples imbroglio unfolded--that it was accidental, not intentional, and that "the very nature of most accidents is that people weren't paying attention, not that they're bad people"

But Lindsay and Arthur insist that there was no mention in their presence of sharing profits with the Staples Center, and both say that if it had been mentioned, they would have objected immediately and strongly. Arthur says that profit-sharing wasn't mentioned at all. Lindsay says there may have been discussion of some kind of profit-sharing agreement but, "It was very vague. . . . It was never attached that specifically" to the magazine, and in any event, "We never got to that point."

Why not? Because, Lindsay says, everyone at the meeting seemed to agree that the magazine was not the proper venue for coverage of the Staples Center opening. That did seem to be the general, if unsettled, consensus.

Objections Mount

Arthur knew that the sports staff was already working on a list of story ideas for a special Staples Center section, similar to supplemental sections the department does 20 or so times a year for such events as the Super Bowl, various golf tournaments and the opening of the major league baseball and professional basketball, football and hockey seasons. He didn't know what form this particular section would take--a newsprint "broadsheet" the size of the regular section or a glossy, magazine-style section--but whichever it was, he preferred letting sports do it, independent of the regular Sunday magazine.

Lindsay opposed use of the Sunday magazine even more fiercely, in part because he didn't think the opening of Staples Center warranted a full issue of the magazine and in part because readers of the magazine are primarily women; a magazine about a sports arena figured to draw a primarily male readership. Lindsay says he also pointed out that The Times was a founding partner of Staples Center, and that if the paper was going to do anything, it should be "a special advertising section. . . . You should not do an editorial section on a business partner."

None of the other participants in this meeting recall Lindsay making that argument, but all do remember Lindsay's adamant opposition on several occasions to devoting an issue of the Sunday magazine to Staples Center. Lindsay has his critics, but Editor Parks and others agree that he has long been an outspoken defender of editorial prerogatives.

"John Lindsay's antennae are always out," says Narda Zacchino, associate editor of The Times, who was Lindsay's direct supervisor from 1990 to 1997. "He can sense any possible conflict of interest situations. He calls them to the attention of senior editors."

Commitment Was Set

So what was the outcome of the March 4 meeting?

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