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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

One could argue that the Festival of Books warrants coverage as a newsworthy event because it draws more than 100,000 people. The same might be said of the heavy coverage given to the paper's ambitious "Reading by 9" program because teaching children to read is such a worthy objective. But Leo Wolinsky is one of a growing number of Times journalists who thinks the paper's coverage of all its own events and programs has become unseemly.

"As a former city editor . . . I know the number of requests we get for coverage of all kinds of events like these" that aren't sponsored by The Times, he says. "How many do we cover? None. . . . The paper was becoming somewhat self-promotional."

Devising Regulations

Parks says he realizes that coverage of these events has "grown without sufficient reflection about what's proportional, what's appropriate." He says he also recognizes the other risks involved in the various events The Times now sponsors.

In the aftermath of the Staples affair, as part of a massive reexamination of many potentially troublesome activities at the paper, The Times has developed a new set of principles and guidelines designed to eliminate many of these problems. The principles and guidelines are the product of suggestions by several dozen members of the newsroom staff. They were developed in response to Downing's request at the Oct. 28 meeting in the cafeteria, and they were approved by her and Parks after consultations with designated members of the editorial department, as well as several experts outside the paper. The principles were published in The Times on Sunday; the guidelines are being distributed to every employee at the paper. Among the many provisions and prohibitions in the guidelines is this one: "Coverage of events in which The Times or its officers are involved will be evaluated on news value alone." (Translation: Among other things, The Times won't publish 13 stories on next year's Investment Strategies Conference.) The guidelines also say the editorial department "may not be involved in managing or promoting" Times-sponsored events. (Translation: Petruno, Ward and others at the paper can go back to being full-time journalists, although they can appear as speakers or panelists.) One of the first guidelines on the list says, "If the publisher decides to enter into joint ventures, partnerships or sponsorships with other organizations, the publisher will fully and promptly disclose the nature of the relationship to the editor. (Translation: Next time Downing will tell Parks what she's doing.)

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.

But why did it take the Staples controversy to trigger this reexamination? For all its recent problems, The Times is still widely regarded as one of the three or four best newspapers in the country. A nationwide poll of editors published last month in the Columbia Journalism Review ranked the paper fourth--just behind the Washington Post and Wall Street Journal and well ahead of the fifth-ranked paper (the Dallas Morning News), all of them trailing the New York Times by a substantial margin. If the three other top papers--the only papers that the L.A. Times really regards as its peer-group competitors--all decided from the beginning that editorial involvement in (and significant news coverage of) their own promotional events was inappropriate, why did it take The Times so long to reach the same conclusion?

In fairness, it should be noted that three of the events--the Investment Strategies Conference, the Travel Show and the Festival of Books--began before Parks became editor. The paper had been dealing with various questions "under the rubric of ethical standards . . . one by one," he says, and the Staples controversy has "given us the opportunity to stand back and look at the whole set and say we want to be in a much different and much better place in terms of what we will do and what we will avoid."

There may be other answers as well--one of them perhaps growing out of the unique challenge that Los Angeles presents to Times management. This metropolitan area is so sprawling, so geographically diffuse and culturally diverse--with so many different communities of interest, large populations of immigrants and strong suburban competitors spread over so much territory--that it is almost certainly the most difficult metropolitan market in the country in which to publish a successful daily newspaper. The Times reaches less than 25% of the homes in the Los Angeles-Orange County area; the Washington Post penetration rate, for one, is more than twice as high. Willes has been very clear about wanting to "reinvent" the newspaper to meet the challenges of the 21st Century in this market, and toward that end, the Los Angeles Times is experimenting in ways that others either won't or don't have to try . . . yet.

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