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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

Sing says that all his new subsections were created with the reader in mind. But they have a strong advertising base and probably would not exist were that not the case. "Advertising considerations are driving what we do in the business section too much," complains Myron Levin, one of Sing's business reporters "We end up committing too much space to material that journalistically doesn't compete with news that doesn't have advertising patrons and so is given short shrift."

Many reporters and editors in other sections of the paper see Sing's ability to parlay his financially successful subsections into greater resources as having sent a dangerous message about management priorities to the rest of the paper--and thus having helped to create the atmosphere in which early reports of the Staples Center profit-sharing deal were dismissed as just one more step in the steady erosion of editorial primacy.

"I think we all have become desensitized to these sorts of compromises so that for a lot of people, the initial reaction when we heard [about Staples] was some variation of 'Thank God, it wasn't worse,' rather than, 'How dare they?' " says David Lauter, a deputy metropolitan editor.

Shaped by Advertising

Sing rightly points out that it isn't his fault if the paper won't allocate more resources for sections that don't, by their very nature, have the direct revenue-generating capabilities of the Business section. "Don't blame me," he says. "Blame top management." Moreover, he says, his staff has produced many Page 1 scoops and enterprise stories that probably would not have been done if he didn't have the special sections for which those reporters were hired. Two writers who cover the entertainment industry as part of the section's Company Town team--one of whom was hired specifically for Company Town--won a Pulitzer Prize this year.

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.

Nevertheless, advertising has clearly played a major role in shaping the Business section--and that started before Sing took over.

The section used to run weekly packages of "international business" and "executive travel" stories, with the advertising department selecting the country to be featured--based on the advertising it could sell (although Sing says the Business section would select and edit the actual stories). For an ad-rich spread on Hawaii on July 25, 1996, the section published two stories--one on its front page, written by a freelance writer touting the recovery of the Hawaiian economy after several years of "sputtering." But 17 months later, the same writer wrote another story for Sing that said Hawaii was "mired in its worst economic slump since becoming a state in 1959." The state's "anemic economy has shed jobs every year since 1992," the story said. There was no mention of the previous story's assurance that Hawaii's economy had been "shifting into high gear" in 1995. But by the time of the second story, Sing--who had inherited the international travel package from his predecessor, Robert Magnuson--had canceled the package. He did so shortly after succeeding Magnuson, who subsequently shifted from the news to the business department of The Times and is now senior vice president for circulation and regional editions.

An Early Case Study

All this happened before Willes became publisher (though after he became chief executive of Times Mirror). He has certainly accelerated the assault on The Wall, but it wouldn't be fair to suggest that he started it.

In January 1994, a year before Willes joined Times Mirror, a complete press run of the entire Food section of The Times was scrapped after a major grocery store advertiser who had been given an early copy of the section by the advertising department complained to the paper's then executive vice president and general manager about a story on the front page of the section. The story--a recapitulation of the previous year's food safety problems--was not changed, but a new headline was written, a new photograph was substituted and the section was reprinted. Shelby Coffey III, then the editor of The Times and now president of CNN Business News and CNNfn, says it was "unfortunate" that the advertiser complained but that "it was an editorial decision straight up. We looked at it carefully and thought it was not the best presentation and the headline was problematic, alarmist, and in fact needed to be changed."

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