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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

It was, and still is, widely believed in the newsroom, however, that the paper's current millennium project in the Metro section--reprinting a historical Times front page with an essay alongside, across from a full page ad--was the advertising department's idea. Not so. Although there were business proposals related to the project that troubled some in the newsroom, it was in the newsroom that the idea of a special millennium project--and front page reproduction--originated. Editors proposed it last year, but the advertising department said it wouldn't sell. When a new head of advertising took over, he asked about the editorial department's plans for millennium coverage and was told about that concept. He embraced it, and his staff sold it.

It's a fact of journalistic life these days that newspapers often won't proceed with new features and sections unless they're certain that they can be supported by advertising. But there were other newsroom incidents that appeared at first to be even further evidence of advertising intrusions on editorial prerogatives.

The most talked-about involved a consumer column by longtime reporter Kenneth Reich. While Reich was working on a column about a car buyer unhappy with a car dealer, the dealer sent an e-mail to The Times advertising department complaining about Reich. The e-mail was passed on from the business side of the paper to Michael Parks, the editor, who passed it down the chain of editorial command. Parks says he did so not because of any concern about the content of the column or because the complainant was an advertiser, but because the dealer had accused Reich of "questioning my employees as if they were criminals." Parks says he wanted Reich's editors to look into these allegations of "unprofessional conduct." Leo Wolinsky, the managing editor to whom Parks gave the e-mail, confirms that's what Parks told him. But no one told Reich, and when he submitted his column, Wolinsky said he didn't think it should run because "it didn't make a point." Parks also thought the column was "problematic," citing problems of "logic . . . and fairness." Reich threatened to stop writing the column and make a public fuss if this one didn't run. Bill Boyarsky, the city editor, suggested some changes to address the editors' objections. Once Reich made them, the column ran (and, Wolinsky says, further inquiry exonerated Reich of unprofessional conduct). But Reich is a loud, cantankerous figure in the newsroom, and when he told colleagues that the column had not been killed only because of his threat, anxiety over advertiser pressure at the paper ratcheted up another notch.

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.

"The business side had been pushing and pushing and pushing," says Bob Sipchen, a senior editor at the magazine. "I think the vehemence of the reaction against the Staples Center issue has a lot to do with the fact that there was pent-up anger and frustration for so long at the little things that had been going on."

Ironically, despite the skepticism expressed about Willes when he took over--and the downright hostile feelings that many in the newsroom have now--many reporters and editors initially welcomed his optimistic, expansionist approach after the years of downsizing that had preceded and accompanied his arrival. Instead of bemoaning the fate of newspapers, as so many in the industry were doing--and deliberately cutting back on circulation, as had previously been done at The Times--Willes was bullishly promising to increase circulation by 500,000. (When Kathryn Downing took over, she upped the ante to 1 million--in effect doubling the current circulation.)

Ad Revenues Increased

The Business section of The Times was the first to embrace Willes' philosophy. Even before he became publisher, the Business section had started several subsections to cover the entertainment industry, personal finance and investing, small business, technology, and advertising and marketing; a commercial real estate subsection that was in the planning stage began publication shortly after Willes took over. Advertising revenue in the section improved significantly and has continued to increase.

After an initial lack of space and staff to adequately cover general business news amid all these new features, Bill Sing, the business editor, was given approval for 12 new full-time staffers and a 15% increase in the space he has each week to cover such news. Willes was happy. This was the way his plan was supposed to work. Sing was happy, too. He was doing what he regarded as innovative journalism for a new era, and in 1998 and '99, the Society of American Business Editors and Writers named his section one of the four best big-city business sections in the country. (Neither the New York Times nor the Wall Street Journal entered the contest.)

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