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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

To him, what Boyarsky did was an act of disloyalty that couldn't have happened at any other kind of business, and he just couldn't understand how it could have happened at The Times. "What am I not getting here?" several of the participants in the conversations recall his asking in one form or another. Three of the editors--Roxane Arnold, David Lauter, a deputy metropolitan editor, and Steve Wasserman, editor of the Book Review--took turns trying to explain to Willes why Chandler was so revered, why Boyarsky had felt compelled to read the statement, and why the newspaper business is so different from any other business--why dissent and independence are so prized among journalists and why a journalist's primary loyalty is not to his editor or his publisher or his CEO or even to his newspaper, but rather to the bedrock principles of the profession. All four editors thought Willes was trying hard to grasp this. Downing was largely silent, but they thought she, too, was trying to understand. Nevertheless, Arnold, Wasserman, Lauter and the fourth editor at the lunch--Stephanie Chavez, a deputy city editor--all left the table feeling that, ultimately, neither Willes nor Downing truly understood what they were trying to say.

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.

"We speak two different languages and have two different world views," Wasserman says. "We and they aren't made from the same wood . . . we don't want the same things or dream the same dreams."

Chavez would later compare the gap between Willes and Downing on one side and the editors--and all journalists--on the other to the gap between two different religions.

"You can tolerate and respect another person's religion," she said, "but you don't really feel it or believe it. I've been a Catholic all my life. I accept the Virgin birth and the other rites of the Catholic Church on faith. It's part of who I am. If you're Jewish, you might respect my right to those beliefs, but you don't share them, you don't really understand them. You can't. Well, journalists live in a certain vocation called journalism, and it's in us and it's our passion, our belief system, and we'll do anything to uphold its essential tenets. That's just different from any other business, where you believe in the power of the company, growing and protecting the company."

Willes called Boyarsky into his office the next day to register his disapproval face to face. Boyarsky also spoke with Downing. He says he had lengthy discussions with each, and while he did not feel he was being called on the carpet or put on notice, neither did he feel that his bosses ultimately grasped why he had read Chandler's statement and what makes a journalist a journalist.

"It's just a different culture," he says, "a big gulf."

A 'Sacred Trust'

Willes and Downing insist they do understand--and value highly--what makes journalism unique. Like many reporters, Downing now speaks of journalism as a "sacred trust." Willes has spoken often and emotionally about his appreciation of--and commitment to--the independence of the daily newspaper. He says the 11 years he spent in the Federal Reserve System, where he was president of one district bank and first vice president of another, "taught me firsthand the value of independence from internal and external pressures."

Willes says that 1999 has been a very good year for The Times. Circulation is up--gains over the previous year have been reported for seven consecutive six-month periods--and the advertising department has brought in record revenues, perhaps as much as $980 million by year's end. The stock price--though down about 10% from its peak--is still high, in the mid-$60 range, compared with $23.25 on the day Willes took charge of Times Mirror in 1995. Stock analysts say the paper's profit margin has moved back up to about 17%, slightly below the industry average of 20% but still at a level that Willes has characterized as "'clearly within the realm of respectability."

If it weren't for the cloud created by the Staples Center controversy, this would be "a time to be happy," Willes says, and he would like nothing better than to put this behind him and proceed with his original vision of "reinventing" the newspaper.

'It's the journalism that I'm fundamentally interested in," Willes said in an interview last year. 'That's genuinely exciting to me. . . . It would be a travesty and a tragedy and a personal embarrassment to me if we ever did anything that in any way harmed or diminished the paper in terms of reputation or impact or quality."

But many people inside the paper and out think The Times has been harmed and diminished under the Willes / Downing regime, with the Staples Center debacle the latest and worst consequence of the breakdown of The Wall.

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