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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

Willes served as Times publisher for 19 months before picking Downing as his successor last summer, and he promised early on to "use a bazooka, if necessary," to blow up The Wall that has symbolically and traditionally separated (and insulated) the news operations at most good newspapers from any business-side intrusion. In response to Willes' call for demolition of The Wall, there has been more communication and cooperation between the news and business departments at The Times in the last two years than ever before. Similar changes have been taking place at other newspapers, large and small, across the country as newspapers struggle to find new revenue and new readers in the face of declining circulation and increased competition from a wide variety of information and entertainment sources. But the changes have been particularly dramatic at The Times, in part because Willes announced them publicly and instituted significant organizational changes designed to implement them. Under these circumstances, with editors and business executives meeting together frequently, it seems unlikely to many at the paper that the profit-sharing agreement was never mentioned at any of these joint meetings, from the time the contract with Staples Center was signed until the details surfaced, quite by happenstance, nine months later, after editorial work on the issue had been completed.

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.

Absence of Discussions

Journalists are natural-born skeptics, so it's not surprising that they would question this assertion. But many on the business side make the same point, among them Holly Bowyer, who was general manager of the Los Angeles Times Magazine when early discussions about Staples coverage took place. Although Bowyer didn't participate in any high-level meetings herself and says she feels "uncomfortable" speculating about them, she echoes the thoughts of many of her colleagues when she says she would "find it hard to believe that it never came up . . . in front of editors."

No editors acknowledge having heard about the profit-sharing agreement until well after all the editorial work on the issue was done and it was at the printing plants. Willes says the absence of that kind of discussion only proves the need for "more communications, not less." The profit-sharing deal happened not because The Wall came down, Willes says, but because people didn't talk to one another when they should have.

Ironically, every editor outside The Times interviewed for this story said the profit-sharing couldn't have happened at their newspapers precisely because they do have good communications between the editorial and business departments, even though none has dismantled The Wall as thoroughly as Willes has.

"Dumb ideas can start anywhere," says Joseph Lelyveld, executive editor of the New York Times. "We're far from infallible. But it's hard to imagine that happening on [our] . . . magazine."

Other editors used words such as "inconceivable" and "impossible," and one former publisher of the Los Angeles Times--Richard T. Schlosberg III--said: "I can't imagine doing something like this without being in lock-step with the editor.

"I haven't been there in two years," he said, "and until you walk in someone's shoes, you hate to second-guess. But . . . we spent a lot of time on interdepartment communications"--so much so, he says, that he and Shelby Coffey III, then-editor of The Times, were "joined at the hip on all editorial projects and even on noneditorial projects . . . peripheral activities that could have some residual impact on the newsroom."

Schlosberg was publisher of The Times for almost four years and before that was publisher of the Denver Post for five. Would he, as publisher, have approved a profit-sharing deal like this one?

"No," he said. "I don't think it would have been proposed."

'It Didn't Register'

Willes says that he didn't know about the profit-sharing arrangement until he heard it mentioned over lunch in the executive dining room, well after work on the magazine was underway. "I assumed Michael and Kathryn had talked about it," he says, but "I didn't realize it was wrong. Shame on me for that. It didn't register the way it should have. . . . It didn't become a life-changing experience until after [the controversy erupted], not before."

Even though it was "a life-changing experience," Willes says he still hasn't looked at the original contract that led to the profit-sharing issue. He knows what's in it, he says, so why read it?

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