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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

The advertising department "went around the general managers, bypassed them," in trying to implement any plans they thought the general managers and the editors would object to, Wolinsky says.

While things were being sorted out--and fought out--on the business side, where new leadership was brought in at the end of 1998, staffers on the news side were as worried about reductions in their resources as they were about encroachments by advertising. The full-time editorial staff has declined almost 17%, from 1,397 in 1990 to 1,161 in 1999. The A section news-hole-- the space available for news in the first section of the paper--has declined almost 18% since 1991. The newshole is expected to shrink a little more when the redesign of the paper is completed next spring.

Salaries and newsprint are the two biggest expenses for a newspaper, but the reporters and editors who earn those salaries--and the stories they put on that newsprint--are why people buy newspapers. To many in the newsroom, all these cutbacks suggest that management is more interested in increasing profits than in improving the paper.

Editorial Exodus

Over the past decade or so, starting before Willes came to Times Mirror, more than 30 Times reporters and editors--many of them among the paper's best--have gone to the New York Times. While some left for personal reasons, many left because of the cutbacks and increasing bottom-line emphasis at The Times. As Norman C. Miller, former national editor of the paper, said in an e-mail to Willes after the Staples story broke, "As one who tried to persuade many of [the departing reporters] . . . to stay, I know that a principal factor in their decisions was a belief that journalistic trends at The Times were unfavorable compared with the NYTimes."

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.

The main reason for that, many of the departees believed, was that members of the Sulzberger family, who hold the controlling interest in the New York Times Co., are committed to upholding traditional journalistic values, even expanding and improving what was already the nation's most respected and influential newspaper, while members of the Chandler family, which holds controlling interest in Times Mirror, are more committed to corporate profits than to journalistic excellence.

Although there is one major exception to that in the Chandler family, he is no longer on the board, no longer possessed of the power to shape the paper. But . . .


The excitement--the tension--was palpable. It was Wednesday afternoon, Nov. 3, and for more than three hours, telephone lines and computer screens in the newsroom at the Los Angeles Times main office and at Times news bureaus around the world had been fairly crackling with the news:

Otis is talking to Boyarsky.

Otis. Otis Chandler. The publisher of The Times from 1960 to 1980. Most of the reporters and editors in the office that day had never worked for him, had never even met him, but he was still Otis--a heroic, even mythic figure at The Times and throughout American journalism. Before he became publisher, The Times was widely scorned as a partisan, parochial paper--one of the 10 worst in the country, according to a poll of Washington correspondents. His forebears, like the cousins and assorted other relatives who would take control after he left, were more interested in money than journalism. But Otis was the surfing, weightlifting, big-game hunting, car-racing he-man whose journalistic vision and personal determination had catapulted The Times from mediocrity into the front ranks of American journalism. "No publisher in America improved a paper so quickly on so grand a scale, took a paper that was marginal in qualities and brought it to excellence as Otis Chandler did," David Halberstam wrote in "The Powers That Be," his 1979 book about the news media.

For the past decade, Chandler had lived in largely self-imposed exile--or at least silence--while controversial changes rocked the paper that his family had created. Now--at a time of great upheaval inside The Times--he was on the telephone with the paper's city editor, Bill Boyarsky, presumably issuing a statement of some sort, judging from Boyarsky's end of the conversation and his steady typing at the computer.

Breaking His Silence

In private conversations, Chandler had been harshly critical of the current management's business strategy for a couple of years, but he had been content--indeed insistent--that those remarks remain private. Suddenly, however, the paper's editorial integrity--and its standing in the journalistic community--had been threatened. Those were matters he cared deeply about. It had been eight days since the paper's Staples Center scandal had erupted--eight embarrassing, excruciating days for him and the newspaper that had been in his family since his great-grandfather bought part-ownership of it in 1882, a year after it began publication. Otis Chandler could no longer remain silent.

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