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SPECIAL REPORT / CROSSING THE LINE

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

"I objected very strongly," says Bill Boyarsky, the city editor. "They told me about the issue [of the magazine], and I said, 'Well, it's an advertising-driven issue, and I don't want my staff to take part in . . . an advertising-driven issue.' " That's what he told one of his bosses, Leo Wolinsky, managing editor for news. But the magazine renewed its appeal, through Parks, and Wolinsky urged Boyarsky to reconsider. Boyarsky reluctantly compromised. He would use a news reporter but not anyone on his own staff, and he insisted on editing the story himself, with a guarantee that no substantive changes would subsequently be made. At the suggestion of Roxane Arnold, the metropolitan editor, he assigned Tony Perry, the paper's San Diego correspondent, to do the story.

CHAPTER FIVE / The Hard Sell

In advertising, meanwhile, John McKeon had become an enthusiastic convert to the idea of using the Sunday magazine for the Staples Center opening.

When he came to The Times in November 1998, McKeon says, he found an advertising department "demoralized [after] . . . a bad year" and with only two salespersons assigned full time to the Sunday magazine. There were no incentives for others on the sales staff to sell ads for the magazine, he says, so he decided to use the Staples issue to jump-start the money-losing magazine and the underachieving ad department. Toward that end, he set a goal of $1 million in advertising revenue for the Staples issue.

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.

"We had never done a magazine with $1 million in revenue," he says. "When I said that, everyone thought I was nuts."

McKeon made it clear that he expected maximum effort from everyone on the sales staff, and at a sales kickoff rally in the fifth-floor salon at The Times on May 19, he says he stood before his staff and asked, "Is there any salesperson here who will have a problem selling a page into this book? If so, please raise your hand."

No hands went up. The message was received: Sell hard.

Unusual Presentation

Alice Short and Rick Jaffe also made brief presentations to the sales staff, an unusual step for editors, especially given that Tim Leiweke, the Staples Center president, the subject of the magazine's planned coverage, also participated. Like McKeon, Leiweke tried to motivate the paper's advertising staff, speaking enthusiastically about the new arena and about the partnership between The Times and the arena operating company, and raffling off free autographed jerseys, basketballs and hockey sticks. That's not all he did.

Six months later, at her confrontational meeting with staff members in The Times cafeteria after the magazine was published, Publisher Kathryn Downing was asked if Staples had cooperated in the sale of ads for the magazine. She said, "It is not true. The L.A. Times advertising staff sold the ads in the L.A. Times magazine." Later in that meeting, in response to another question, she said, "As far as I know," Staples did not sell ads for the magazine. But Staples did cooperate in that sales effort. Leiweke says he and his Staples colleagues were "very aggressive at selling ads" for the magazine. "Our role was to dig up the leads, kick up as much interest as we could and then . . . turn the leads over" to The Times advertising department. That offended Times journalists.

Why? If the subject of editorial coverage in a magazine asks companies to advertise in that magazine, it leaves the impression that the subject has some financial interest in the magazine or some influence over its content or, at the very least, that the subject is confident that the coverage in the magazine will be flattering.

Leiweke wrote a letter, included in The Times media kit that went to potential advertisers, touting the special issue of the magazine as a demonstration of "the foundation of partnership on which Staples Center was built" and urging recipients to buy an ad. Leiweke also urged the other founding partners to advertise. He didn't actually negotiate any deals or sign any advertising contracts, but nine of the 10 founding partners bought ads, and Leiweke says "all these founding partners, ultimately I sold" on the idea of advertising in the magazine.

Kevin Murphy, his senior vice president for development at Staples Center, sent letters to 50 of the arena's contractors and suppliers, saying that the magazine was being produced "to commemorate and advertise the grand opening of the Staples Center." Murphy said the magazine would be "referred to as the official guide to the Staples Center."

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