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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

But that's exactly the position that Petruno and The Times have been in.

Petruno has called on his and The Times' current and potential news sources in the financial community to participate in the conference. No one questions his integrity, and indeed his colleagues say that many prominent figures have agreed to participate in The Times conference precisely because he has such an excellent journalistic reputation. But the potential for a conflict of interest is clearly inherent "if you're putting the arm on a CEO you cover to attend a conference you're making money from," Steiger says.

Petruno is aware of this risk but doesn't think the paper's independence has been compromised. He says that by insisting on complete control over the invitations and refusing to allow conference sponsors or advertisers to buy their way onto the program, he has safeguarded the integrity of the conference. Indeed, Vicki Torres, a business reporter who recently left The Times, says that when she worked on the paper's small business conference, someone in the advertising department "pressured" her to put representatives of certain businesses on program panels. "They were supposed to be sponsors [of the conference], and they said they wouldn't do it if they weren't on panels," Torres says.

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.

Avoiding Conflicts

Petruno is happy to have avoided that particular problem, but he has worried about the large amount of time he and his staff of nine have spent on the conference each year. He says he alone has devoted the equivalent of four to six weeks a year on it--perhaps 10% of his total work time. That's "a lot of effort to go to for something for only 5,000 to 6,000 people" who attend the conference, he says, and he questions whether it has been worth it to the paper to have him take that much time away from working on stories that presumably would be of interest and benefit to many more of the paper's 1.1 million readers.

Leslie Ward, the Times travel editor, feels the same way about the annual Los Angeles Times Travel Show. "We spend months trying to get the panels together," she says. "There's no way your primary section can't suffer. . . . I hate it. I loathe it."

Petruno says that after working on the conference for three years, he now thinks the paper should "farm it out"--have someone else do it outside the editorial department.

That's what the Washington Post and Wall Street Journal do when they sponsor conferences. The Baltimore Sun, another Times Mirror newspaper, has a similar policy. At all three papers, reporters and editors may appear at the events as speakers or moderators or panelists, but they do not invite others to participate, and they are not involved in organizing the events.

"We don't want to get into that line of work," Downie says. "That's not news coverage."

(Some other newspapers, the Boston Globe and Philadelphia Inquirer among them, have used newsroom employees to invite participants to their investment conferences.)

Downie says the Post also avoids another area of conflict. "We hardly ever cover the events" that the Post sponsors, he says. If anything, the staff "discriminates against us." To promote the events, Downie says, the paper makes "liberal use of house ads"--ads placed by the paper itself.

The Los Angeles Times used to be equally wary of publishing stories that seemed to promote the paper or the events it sponsored.

Not in recent years, though.

This year, The Times published four stories on the Festival of Books, six on the Festival of Health and 13 on the Investment Strategies Conference (most of them relatively brief announcements of speakers and programs). The week before the Small Business Strategies Conference, the paper published a Page 1 Los Angeles Times poll of small business owners (headline: "Business Is 'Robust' for Small L.A. County Firms"), as well as a three-day special report on "The state of small business in L.A. County."

In addition, for each of these events, the paper published a section that doubled as an event program. For the Investment Strategies Conference, the section ran 56 pages.

On Oct. 16, the first day of the Festival of Health, the Hector Mine earthquake struck. Roxane Arnold, the metropolitan editor, says that she had previously told Don Hunt, the weekend city editor, to assign a reporter to cover the festival, but between the quake and other breaking news, he didn't have anyone available. She says he asked her for guidance, and she told him to forget about covering the festival. But later that day, she says, Michael Parks called Hunt and told him to send a reporter and a photographer to the festival. Arnold says Hunt had to call in extra people.

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