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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

"Over the last two years," Parks says, "we have attempted to do new things, to do things in different ways, look at present practices and in many respects to shed ourselves of the burden of habit. We do this because we need to grow, because we need to adapt to the interests and needs of readers, which are constantly changing. We do it to respond to the needs of society, and we do it to respond to the needs of our customers. We've sought new revenues. We've also experimented with our journalism. We've changed the paper."

In saying all that, Parks sounds much like Willes. Has he absorbed Willes' business ethos? Has he had to fight to preserve editorial integrity? Does he feel beaten down by the struggles?

"A more apt description might be 'fully engaged with the business side,' " he says. "I haven't had a problem telling Publisher Willes or Publisher Downing when I thought something was not a good idea or would take us somewhere I didn't want to wind up. . . . I had no problem saying no when the [former] vice president for advertising wanted ads on the front page or the front pages of sections."

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 until the ethical guidelines were developed, he didn't say no to over-coverage of Times-sponsored events or to Times editors and reporters asking their sources to participate in Times-sponsored events.

Willes speaks often of needing "an environment in which it's OK to take risks . . . risks on people, risks on investments, risks on ideas," and Parks and Downing agree. "Risk-taking is a part of growth," Parks says. "Growth means going where people haven't gone. Good journalism in itself is risk-taking." He, Downing and Willes all say they realize that risks are not acceptable, however, if they could compromise the integrity and credibility of the paper. The trick is to be able to recognize those. One problem with trying to reinvent something that you've had little or no experience with is that you may not know just what does and doesn't pose those risks.

As former Times Editor William F. Thomas said in a recent interview: "When you take down a wall, you'd better understand why it was there in the first place."

A Daunting Operation

Willes and Downing, new to newspapers and committed to building circulation and profits, may not have fully realized the importance of The Wall, at least symbolically.

And Parks?

He has been a journalist for almost 40 years. He is a man of considerable intelligence and personal integrity. But he was a reporter for the first 31 of those years, and for 25 of them, he was stationed abroad, far from the newsrooms and corporate boardrooms where battles over the bottom line, breaking down The Wall, corporate ownership and the very survival of newspapers were increasingly being waged.

Those who have worked with Parks say that he is a remarkably quick learner, but he didn't become an editor at The Times--deputy foreign editor--until 1995; he became managing editor a year later and assumed the editorship 17 months after that--an uncommonly rapid climb in a profession generally known for incremental, through-the-ranks grooming of top editors.

The Los Angeles Times is a huge operation--6,400 employees and more than $1 billion in annual revenue, an editorial staff of almost 1,200 and an editorial budget of $115 million. It can't be easy to get on top of everything and stay there, no matter how smart and honest you are and no matter how hard you work; it would seem an especially daunting task for someone relatively new to being a boss, relatively new to the newsroom, relatively new to the city--and teamed up with an inexperienced publisher (first Willes, now Downing).

Willes' first full year as publisher--1998--was a tough year for the paper financially. Although circulation increased modestly, and the stock price--which had more than tripled in his first five months as publisher--remained high, thanks largely to a buoyant national economy, the advertising sales force failed to meet its annual goal, and profit margins dropped. Was that because Willes' ideas didn't work or because it was taking a while to properly implement them? He says it was the latter and points to the paper's strong financial performance this year as proof of that.

In 1998, Willes says, the news side of the paper did a good job; the business side did not.

Idea Abandoned

In fact, Willes' idea of one general manager for each major section of the paper was quickly being abandoned--or at least significantly restructured--to accommodate objections from the business side. Ironically, given all the worries among journalists that the general managers might try to impose advertising interests over editorial concerns, the best general managers had proved so sympathetic to the need for editorial independence that it was the folks in advertising, not the reporters and editors, who came to regard them as the enemy.

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