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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

Why should Shin or any other reader believe that the reporters and editors involved in the Staples issue hadn't known about the profit-sharing agreement in advance, especially since the glitzy, advertising-fat magazine had an undeniably commercial and promotional feel to it? Emblematically, as it turned out, one of the better features in the magazine--a four-page fold-out filled with useful and interesting information incorporated into an artist's rendering of how the arena was built and how it would function--was hidden behind a two-page, center spread Toyota advertisement whose four inside corners were glued shut; readers could not see the editorial material unless they got curious and peeled back the ad.

But the profit-sharing agreement raised questions that went beyond that single issue of the Sunday magazine. Why should Times readers trust anything The Times wrote about Staples Center, or any of its tenants or attractions, anywhere in the paper, now or in the future, if The Times and Staples Center were business partners? More important, how many other such improper arrangements, formal or informal, might also exist or be created in the future with other entities, agencies and individuals covered by The Times?

Potential for Conflict

To be sure, The Times is not the first newspaper to make a deal with a local sports arena or sports team that raised questions. The owners of USA Today, the Chicago Tribune, the Dallas Morning News, the Arizona Republic, the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette and the Rocky Mountain News in Denver have all invested in sports teams. Even if these newspapers are scrupulously fair, such arrangements put them in the awkward position of having to cover, on a regular basis, teams that are part of their own corporate families. The potential for--and the appearance of--a conflict of interest is inevitable.

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.

In a poll published early this month in Editor & Publisher magazine, 51% of the 60 publishers who responded said they found The Times' profit-sharing deal "acceptable." But the 60 respondents represent less than 3% of all daily newspaper publishers, and almost two-thirds of the respondents run papers with less than 100,000 circulation, where standards often tend to be looser and ties with local civic and commercial institutions much closer than in big cities. The Times has a circulation of more than 1 million, and no publisher whose paper has a circulation of more than 500,000 found the profit-sharing acceptable.

In the case most often compared to The Times', the Boston Globe published a special section on the new Fleet Center arena in 1995, with the arena acting as a sales agent for the Globe; the Fleet Center received a commission on the ads it sold. But the Globe didn't give the Fleet Center half its profits from the section and it did not become a "founding partner" of Fleet Center, as The Times did with Staples Center.

As a result of its deal, The Times was widely pilloried for its "willingness to sell off its editorial integrity for some golden coins," as Robert McChesney, a communications professor at the University of Illinois, wrote in Newsday, The Times' sister paper in New York.

The Watergate Question

Enraged and embarrassed by the deal, and by the journalistic scrutiny it drew from coast to coast, Times journalists now fear that the very essence of their work--the bond of trust between them and their readers--has been jeopardized. Throughout the paper, one question has echoed, the question that has been known in journalistic circles for the past 25 years as the Watergate question: "What Did He Know and When Did He Know It?"

At The Times, "he" is Parks--and sometimes, the "he" has become "they"; what did any of the top editors (or anyone else in the editorial department) know about the profit-sharing arrangement and when did they know it?

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