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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

In the ensuing months, as the advertising dollars began to pour in and it became clear that the magazine would be substantially larger than he originally envisioned, did Parks worry that it would no longer be "appropriate in terms of proportionality"? Was he concerned that the paper might be giving too much attention to the new arena, that the magazine and the newspaper might appear too promotional?

Parks said he "circled back several times with John Lindsay and Alice Short and Bill Dwyre on a couple of issues: Are we clear on the editorial integrity? We're not writing promotional articles? We're not being pressured by advertisers?" Parks says he was "assured that, in fact, the independence was there." He says he asked what was being put in the magazine, was given a list of stories and found them appropriate.

None of the three editors to whom he said he spoke about those matters recalls those conversations about pressure or independence, although Short says: "I don't think it would be fair of me to say he's wrong. I don't know if I remember our last conversation about it."

So the advertising, sports and magazine staffs, among others, continued to do their jobs, and everything seemed fine . . . until Monday, Sept. 13.

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.

CHAPTER SIX / The Prelude

Sheri Wish of the advertising department says that she came back to the office after a week out of town and wanted to check on the positioning of the ads in the Staples Center issue. She was referred to Ann Connors, managing editor of the magazine, who had the only set of "blue lines"--page proofs.

Connors was going to a meeting, so she told Wish the blue lines were available in her office.

Connors soon had cause to regret her cooperation.

The regret came over an issue that, to outsiders, may seem so inconsequential as to be silly. But it had great symbolic significance to Times reporters and editors.

Executives at Staples Center prefer to have their arena known as "Staples Center," not "the" Staples Center. That's "their big sensitive spot," Wish says, and as she looked at the page proofs in Connors' office, the word "the" in front of Staples Center "just jumped off the page at me." With Connors gone, Wish went looking for another editor. She found Drex Heikes, executive editor of the magazine, and told him the "the" was "inappropriate." Heikes said that the use of "the" was a matter of newspaper style and editorial prerogative and that Wish had no right to try to influence either. "No one," he would later say, "says, 'I'm going to Staples Center.' They say, 'I'm going to the Staples Center.' "

Heikes says Wish insisted that "the" had to be removed. He says she raised her voice. He raised his voice. Editor Alice Short, in a meeting behind closed doors, heard the ruckus and came out to investigate. The conversation became even more heated, probably intensified at least in part by the journalists' resentment that, from the beginning, the Staples issue had been an advertising-driven vehicle, not a project conceived to serve readers. Now Wish was determined to protect her client, Staples Center; Short and Heikes were equally determined to protect the integrity of the editorial process, even on so seemingly trivial a matter as the word "the."

Mistaken Impression

Wish left and went to her boss, John McKeon. Later, Michael Parks and Short discussed the problem. After hearing what an expensive, time-consuming, logistical nightmare it would be to drop the more than 100 "the's" in front of "Staples Center" throughout the magazine, Parks ruled that "the" would stay.

Wish told Tim Leiweke the bad news the next day. To her surprise and relief, "He was very nonchalant," she says. "He said, 'Don't worry about it. Thanks for the heads-up. It's not a big deal." But Wish had made it seem like a very big deal, and Short's report to her staff on Park's questions about how much it would cost and how difficult it would be to make the change left many with the mistaken impression that he was going to capitulate to the advertising department's plea right then. Those in the editorial department who heard about the contretemps were troubled.

Within the next week or so, three more exchanges between business department employees and Times editors would give new meaning to the "the" debate, and light the fuse to the keg of journalistic dynamite that ultimately exploded into the Staples Center scandal.

On Sept. 14, the day after the "the" squabble among Wish, Short and Heikes, Parks attended an all-day senior management budget meeting. He now thinks it may have been at that meeting that he first heard about the profit-sharing agreement. It's possible, however, that information on the profit-sharing was available to him at a meeting a month earlier and that, as may have happened with John Lindsay and John Arthur five months earlier, he didn't recognize it.

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