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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

Actually, it's not the latest. Early this month, Steve Brodhead, then an executive in the advertising department (he has since left the paper), forwarded to Alice Short, the magazine editor, e-mail complaints from two of his subordinates about a cockfighting story in the Nov. 29 issue of the Sunday magazine. One e-mail, from Chris Avery, an ad director in the paper's New York office, said it "needs to be noted with editorial that in a holiday entertainment issue, or any issue, that this kind of article is inappropriate."

What's "inappropriate" is for an employee in advertising to complain to an editor about a story.

"[John] McKeon and I will have conversations about that," Parks says. McKeon, who has been traveling most of the past two weeks, says he knew nothing of this incident until he was asked about it for this story.

Meanwhile, acting on instructions from Downing to review all existing and pending contracts to be sure there are no future Staples-like obligations lurking in the fine print, Julie Xanders, senior vice president and general counsel for The Times, last month found several other potential problems.

One was a proposal for a commercial real estate conference to be sponsored by the Business section of The Times and UCLA Extension. If the attendance exceeded a predetermined amount, The Times would have shared in registration revenue, Xanders says. Wouldn't that have given the paper an incentive to provide more coverage than the event might have been worth? Couldn't that have compromised the editorial integrity of the paper? The revenue-sharing idea was dropped.

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.

Xanders also came across a recommendation from the paper's senior manager of automotive advertising that The Times publish a special section on the California Speedway in Ontario, with the operators of the speedway helping to sell advertising for the section and receiving a commission for its efforts. That proposal has now been rejected.

The proposal was made in the course of renegotiating an existing contract with the speedway for advertising, signage and related promotional activities. While reviewing the contract, Xanders also found language that made it appear that The Times was obligated to publish a special section on the speedway each year. In fact, unaware of that clause and operating independently of the advertising department, the sports department has produced two speedway special sections a year to coincide with major races there. Xanders says the clause was ambiguous. It said The Times had "the right to cancel the section if, in The Times sole discretion, the minimum advertising requirement is not met." But this passage appears in the contract under a subheading "The Times Additional Obligations," so Xanders has asked that the contract language be redrafted to remove any hint of obligation. The final language, Xanders says, will require the approval of the managing editor who supervises the section.

Responding Quickly

In the course of her contract review--which is now about 50% complete--Xanders says she has found "three or four" other instances in which trade agreements contained ambiguous language about The Times' obligation to publish "special sections" in exchange for an advertising commitment. "The necessary clarity about whether that referred to advertorials--advertising supplements--or editorial sections is not there," she says. "We are going to redraft the language to make it clear that there is no promise to create an editorial section."

At least two other missteps have taken place at The Times since Staples.

On Sunday, Nov. 28, a copy editor at the paper noticed that a four-page advertorial did not have the required "Advertising Supplement" label. Without that, it could be mistaken for an editorial section. Word quickly moved up the chain of command. This time, Downing acted quickly. She ordered all 600,000 copies of the advertorial destroyed. The proper label was put on the section and all of the next day's feature sections had to be reprinted. Estimated extra cost for paper and ink alone: $92,000.

Three days later, the Sunday Book Review was printed. Inside was a seven-page advertorial from the Southern California Booksellers Assn. It, too, had no "Advertising Supplement" label. Again Downing ordered all 1.3 million copies the offending copies destroyed and the entire 40-page Book Review reprinted with the appropriate labeling. Estimated extra cost for paper and ink: $116,000.

Most in the newsroom who knew of these gaffes--and of Downing's decisive moves to correct them--were encouraged. "She's learning," several said. But many also asked how these two incidents--clear violations of the paper's policies, clear threats to the paper's credibility--could possibly have occurred . . . and how did they occur so soon after Staples, when surely everyone at the paper knew that everything The Times did would be examined carefully?

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