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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

Downing says the first advertorial was handled by a new salesman who didn't know the paper's policies; the second was similar to an advertorial that had run the previous year, also unlabeled, so it didn't trigger any alarms.

One contributing problem with the Book Review advertorial, John McKeon says, is that it came in electronically--by computer rather than on paper--so it slipped between the cracks of the paper's regular checking procedures.

The same thing happened with an ad late last month at the Washington Post.

"It was a full-page ad [that] looked somewhat like a story," Leonard Downie says. "I called Steve Hills [the paper's vice president for advertising] as soon as I saw it that morning."

Downie says Hills said that if he checked his e-mail, he would find one informing him that he had already spoken to the ad salesman involved, and the advertiser had been informed he couldn't do that again. New procedures, Downie said, are in place to prevent a recurrence of the mistake.

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.

At the L.A. Times, McKeon sent a memo out to everyone in the advertising department a week after the first slip-up, reminding his staff, "The text and any accompanying art for every ad must be seen and evaluated by the appropriate" sales department personnel.

As necessary as this memo obviously was, it was a relatively small step when compared with the other statements being delivered by Times executives this month--the new statement of principles published on Page 1 on Sunday and the new guidelines just completed and designed to prevent a recurrence of the Staples fiasco or anything else that could compromise the integrity or credibility of the paper. They were developed under Wolinsky's direction, based on input from the newsroom staff and suggestions from others.

Among other things, the guidelines cover conflicts of interest, joint ventures and sponsorships, advertorials and contacts between advertising and editorial employees, and they attempt to restore to the editorial department the final say on all matters related to news coverage and the independence of the news columns.

Downing says that the paper is also considering bringing in representatives from an outside journalistic organization--perhaps either the American Press Institute or the Committee of Concerned Journalists--to conduct a program that would expose employees on the business side to discussions about journalism ethics and other editorial considerations.

That would help remedy what Willes calls "the thing I feel most badly about and most responsibility for" in the Staples affair.

"When we talked about bringing the walls down," he says, "what we should have done--and it's so blindingly obvious in hindsight that you say how could you not have thought of it--is to develop an explicit set of principles, rules of engagement, whatever you want to call it. They should have been developed, discussed and agreed upon by both sides and there should have been education and training for the staff."

Several newspapers already have such training programs. For the past four years, the Dallas Morning News has conducted two-day "Understanding Journalistic Excellence" workshops in which top editors explain to executives and other employees from various business departments at the paper how the news department functions.

Prompted by the Staples Center controversy, a number of other newspapers across the country are discussing and / or formulating similar training programs and developing or revising their guidelines and codes of ethics. Many journalists who think the dismantling of The Wall has gone too far welcome this as a necessary step toward reasserting editorial independence and restoring public confidence in their credibility. At the Los Angeles Times, the guidelines and the candid discussions that produced them could be the silver lining in the "horrific" Staples cloud that Downing described in her Oct. 28 meeting with the staff.

Heightened Sensitivity

Breaches of The Wall before the Staples Center issue were often incremental at The Times, and resistance to them was generally dismissed by management as a knee-jerk opposition to anything new and different. But everyone in a position of power at the paper--from Willes and Downing on down, in the business and editorial departments alike--seems to agree, albeit belatedly and reluctantly in some cases, that Staples was a colossal blunder, one that seriously threatens the paper's credibility. As such, it has given rise to the new guidelines and to a heightened sensitivity to ethical concerns.

"The only way to get better is to learn from what we've done," Downing says. "That's why I'm confident we'll come out better after Staples."

Is she right? Or will the guidelines be followed diligently only until profit margins fall again and pressure for new revenue intensifies? Will the heightened sensitivity recede once the Staples Center controversy begins to fade?



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