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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

Although many in the advertising department of the Los Angeles Times feel the same way about their paper, interviews in recent weeks make it clear that many do not--or, at the very least, that they do not grasp why the Staples profit-sharing arrangement was a mistake. They think the paper didn't do anything wrong. They don't understand what all the fuss is about. They are convinced that the news department's demand for a full investigation amounts to a "witch hunt" and a "lynch mob," with the advertising department as its target.

The breach that made the profit-sharing gaffe possible may make interdepartmental cooperation more difficult than ever. But even before Staples, in the long aftermath of Willes' announced intent to break down The Wall, the natural tension between the editorial and advertising departments at The Times had gradually intensified--so much so that weeks before the Staples controversy broke, the paper's foreign editor was calling its vice president for advertising a liar.

That episode began in mid-August, when a representative of the Global Press advertising sales firm, apparently representing himself as a Times reporter, arranged an interview with the president of the Brazilian Senate. Simon Li, the paper's foreign editor, says that the senator's press aide later complained that a woman accompanying the "reporter" asked the senator for a monetary contribution to a special advertorial section on Brazil to be published in The Times. The press aide said the woman and her colleague also gave the senator a list of 20 prominent individuals in Brazil with whom they wanted his help in setting up interviews.

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.

When Li learned of this, he called John McKeon, the paper's top advertising executive. Li says that McKeon told him The Times did not have a deal with Global Press. But a few days after Li registered his complaint, McKeon sent a fax to Global Press accusing them of being "in breach of any agreement" between the two companies and demanding that Global Press "cease and desist" any activities involving The Times. To Li, this fax is evidence that McKeon lied to him. "How could they be in breach of an agreement if there were no agreement?' Li asks. McKeon denies having lied.

Conflicts between the news and advertising departments--and, more important, incidents that blurred the line between advertising and news--began even before the incident in Brazil, though, and their gradual accumulation and acceleration, under mounting pressure for greater profits, helped desensitize many in the newsroom to the first reports of the Staples profit-sharing deal. Smoldering resentment over those incidents also made the explosion of rage, when it finally came, much larger than it otherwise might have been.

Millennium Coverage

A few of the incidents:

* In the fall of 1997, The Times began publication of a weekly Health section. It has a soft focus not likely to offend advertisers; it is not a section given to probing stories on managed care networks, prescription drug recalls or government investigations of pharmaceutical monopolies. Such stories do appear in the news sections of the paper, but the Health section lacks the harder, newsier edge of, say, the Washington Post's weekly Health section.

* "From time to time," said Steve Wasserman, editor of the paper's Book Review, "it has been suggested to me that we should pay more attention to books published by companies with big ad budgets. When I would ask for an example, I would be told, 'Books in the windows at Barnes & Noble.' " Wasserman was troubled by that--and not only because he didn't think he should select books for review based on the ad budgets behind them. Until recently, if a visitor to the Los Angeles Times Web site clicked on the Barnes & Noble logo on the paper's online Book Review--or on any other Barnes & Noble ad on the Times Web site--he would have been whisked to the Barnes & Noble site; if he bought a book, The Times received a sales commission of 6% of the purchase price. As Wasserman said: "We have a commercial interest in the success of those books." (That arrangement no longer exists, the one-year contract having expired. But The Times has similar commission deals with half a dozen other online advertisers.) Leah Gentry, editorial director of new media for The Times, says an e-commerce policy statement disclosing any such arrangements is being developed. It is expected to be posted on the Times Web site by Jan. 1.

* Last summer, when plans for Times coverage of the millennium were being discussed, the advertising department prepared a presentation in which advertisers were told that there would be a "Millennium Home contest," the winner of which would be "profiled in a follow-up feature article" in the Los Angeles Times Magazine. Neither the magazine editors nor anyone else in the editorial department had, or would, make any such commitment. There was, and would be, no such contest.

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