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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

Still, the most important factor in the lag time between first word and big explosion may well have been a gradual, insidious change in the climate at the paper; so many in the newsroom had become so inured to intrusions by business-side considerations in the editorial process that they were desensitized and demoralized. City Editor Bill Boyarsky's early objection to having one of his reporters write for the Staples Center issue of the magazine had helped stigmatize the entire project as "an advertising-driven puff piece," in Weinstein's words, so many people reacted to news of the profit-sharing agreement with a "What did you expect?" shrug of their shoulders.

"A climate has been established here at this paper by Mark Willes and the many people he's brought in from outside the business that a lot of very strange things are pitched and have even been implemented," says Managing Editor John Arthur. "Some of these events . . . simply become eyebrow-raising rather than ear-splitting."

Wada thinks a violation as flagrant as profit-sharing should transcend any desensitization, but Wolinsky's comment, echoed by many others at the paper, underscores the problem that almost inevitably occurs when newspapers replace The Wall with "a line," as so many newspaper executives say they want to do. Yes, a wall has its flaws; it's hard to see over it or talk through it, and that's not conducive to the kind of communication and cooperation so vital to the survival of newspapers today. But a wall is also impregnable and immovable, at least in theory; a line can be breached much more easily, moved so gradually that no one knows it has actually been moved until it's too late, and principles have been irrevocably compromised.

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 think what I've seen in the last year, and maybe a little bit more, is a slippery slope," Wolinsky says. "I've seen a lot of things I would classify as incursions over the line. This was another one. Certainly, in retrospect, it was the worst. . . . But the transgressions were incremental.

"Money," Wolinsky says, "is always the first thing we talk about. The readers are always the last thing we talk about."

CHAPTER NINE / The Wall

When Mark Willes took over as publisher of The Times in October 1997, the reaction in the journalistic community was as immediate as it was predictable. 'Demolition Man," 'Blowing Up the Wall," and 'Cap'n Crunch at the Helm" were a few of the headlines that greeted him. After all, two years earlier, when he'd joined Times Mirror as chairman and chief executive, he had eliminated 700 jobs at The Times--150 of them in the editorial department--and cut 2,300 more at other Times Mirror properties. He had also closed the Manhattan edition of Newsday, closed the Baltimore Evening Sun and terminated several regular sections at The Times. When the carnage was complete, he had a new nickname: the "Cereal Killer."

But The Times' profit margin, stock price and circulation had all been declining, and Willes felt he had to do something drastic. What he really wanted, he said, was to make The Times bigger, not smaller--bigger and better. He thought he could do that, in part by dismantling The Wall between the editorial and business departments and appointing general mangers to help each section of the paper maximize its commercial potential. He was convinced, he said, that greater interdepartmental cooperation--and a more focused, aggressive approach to promoting and selling advertising for the paper--would bring in new revenues that could be used to hire more reporters and editors and add more space, all with no loss of editorial independence.

Willes' plans were greeted with much skepticism, inside and outside The Times. The editorial and business departments of a newspaper have different and sometimes conflicting objectives, so tension between them is "a part of life at any newspaper, including this one," as the New York Times would observe in an editorial on the Staples affair.

Maintaining Integrity

Editors at the New York Times and a few other top papers say that they are generally able to manage these tensions because their advertising departments realize that the integrity of the paper is their biggest selling point--it's what makes the paper credible to readers and thus valuable to advertisers--so they are committed to preserving the paper's independence.

When the vice presidents in charge of various departments at the Chicago Tribune meet and "some of them try to do bad things to editorial, it's the vice president for advertising who has stood up for editorial over the years," says Howard Tyner, editor of the Chicago Tribune.

Leonard Downie, executive editor of the Washington Post, says Donald Graham, publisher of the Post, hires top advertising executives who are "as committed to editorial excellence and independence as I am. . . . A newspaper is a public service, and the people on the business side at the Post believe in that as much as we do."

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