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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

But Editor Michael Parks, who originally favored letting the sports section handle the Staples Center coverage, says he came to realize that the opening of the arena was not just a sports story. "Clearly we needed a coherent plan," he says. "After talking to many people, I decided Staples Center was an important event in the renaissance of downtown Los Angeles," and the best way to cover that was to "do it all in one place . . . in the magazine. Effectively, I overruled John Lindsay."

Was Parks aware that The Times was a founding partner of Staples Center? Yes. And Lindsay had told him he didn't think the paper should "do an editorial section on a business partner."

But Parks says that he had heard nothing about profit-sharing at that time, and he thought " 'founding partnership' . . . was just a fancy rubric for what was a fairly straightforward, customary, promotional relationship for the paper. . . . My understanding of being a founding partner was [that] . . . we pay them to put up signs, we pay them to sell the paper there, and we paid them for [a suite], not that we were sharing revenue. . . . Had I a full and correct understanding of the relationship . . . we wouldn't have done it, and I would certainly have told the publisher and the CEO that the relationship with Staples posed huge problems for the newsroom because it put into question the paper's editorial integrity."

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.

Did Parks look at the contract? He says that he didn't. At one point in the early discussions, he says, people on the business side said they "felt obligated to do a souvenir book as part of a written agreement," and he asked Helin what the agreement said.

"Helin said he'd find it and get back to me," Parks says. "I don't recall his ever getting back to me."

Helin says he has "no recall whatsoever" of the request. "In fact," he says, "I have a recall that would say I didn't have that conversation with him. It doesn't make sense to me." On the other hand, Helin concedes, "Maybe I don't remember the conversation now because I didn't remember it then."

Follow-Up--or Not?

Folow-Up --Or Not?

Did Parks follow up with Helin? He says that he didn't. In fact, to this day, even after all the controversy about the profit-sharing arrangement, Parks says he still hasn't looked at the contract. "I think it's better that editorial independence be asserted," he says. "They don't read our stories. I don't read their contracts."

Once Parks made the decision to devote an entire issue of the Sunday magazine to Staples Center, the business side swung into action. A meeting was scheduled for 2 p.m., March 30, in a fifth floor conference room to map strategy for the issue. The agenda for that meeting lists "Up to $300,000 revenue share commitment to Staples Center at net (i.e., profits after expenses)." The names of "required attendees" for that meeting is listed on Page 2 of the agenda. All seven names are from the business side of the paper; no one from editorial was invited or present, even though "content ideas and recommendations" is the first item on the agenda and at least two other editorial matters are also included.

But the sports and advertising departments had been in communication with each other since before the magazine decision was made. On March 9, Rick Jaffe, the executive sports editor, had sent Sheri Wish, who was leading the advertising sales effort, a "tentative Staples plan"--a list of more than 20 stories under consideration for the sports department's contribution to whatever kind of section was ultimately produced; the list included the names of the reporters expected to do the stories. Jaffe subsequently sent a similar, updated list to Sole.

Newspaper advertising departments often clamor for such lists; they say it makes it easier for them to sell ads. But most editors strenuously resist these requests as improper intrusion; advertisers may be told the general content of a given issue or section, but editors say they have no right to know what specific stories will appear, and they certainly shouldn't be told who the reporters are. The risk of interference is too great. Why did Jaffe send his list to advertising? In the spirit of cooperation. Besides, he says, the lineup of stories and their authors changed considerably before the issue was published.

Selecting a Writer

The metropolitan news department of The Times wasn't particularly interested in cooperating with the magazine, though. One of the stories that the magazine editors had in mind for their Staples issue was an examination of what impact sports arenas in other cities had had on their downtowns. They wanted someone from the paper's metropolitan staff to write it.

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