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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

Willes and Downing say that so many people left either because they accepted good job offers elsewhere or because they didn't agree with or couldn't properly implement the new strategies that Willes and Downing wanted to use at the paper. But many past and present Times executives, and several current Times editors and business-side employees, say that Willes and Downing are not receptive to criticism or cautionary advice; with Downing in particular, they say, subordinates who offer such comments with any frequency are made to feel unwelcome. Willes is more civil and subtle about it, they say; her management style is often described as "my way or the highway."

Criticism Leveled

Editors and executives are reluctant to criticize Willes or Downing on the record, especially if they still work at the paper. But one former executive who is willing to do so is Bill Isinger. Isinger spent 23 years with Times Mirror, seven of them as senior financial officer of The Times, before becoming Downing's assistant in 1998. He left the paper about six months later.

Isinger says that Willes and Downing were initially welcomed by other Times executives who were enthusiastic about his commitment to the community and to journalism and about many of the changes they both wanted to make. "But it began to unravel and deteriorate as people got a greater sense of how they ran the day-to-day business," Isinger says. "They had no newspaper experience, and while that can be healthy--you bring in new, outside ideas, you're not chained to the previous ways of doing things--they have a certain hubris about it. They don't take any counsel. They thought they could drive the paper where it should go without knowing anything of the traditions of the newspaper business. Willes often said, 'Business is business.' They didn't realize that newspapers are different."

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.

Interviews with several other former Times executives yielded an identical theme. Schlosberg said that although he had never worked with Downing and had "sometimes" been able to change Willes' mind on various issues when the two worked together, a number of the departed executives had told him that her management style didn't seem to welcome a "loyal opposition."

Former Times executives also noted that there had been a significant exodus of high-level executives shortly after Downing took over as president and chief executive of Matthew Bender, a legal publishing company then owned by Times Mirror, in 1995; two years later, after she became chief executive of the combined companies of Matthew Bender and Mosby Inc., 16 of Mosby's top 19 executives left the merged company.

Result of Inexperience

Downing says that most of those departures are attributable to "personal and personnel-related reasons," to "allegiance to the former CEO" [whom she replaced] and to "redundancy"--when two companies merge, several jobs suddenly exist in duplicate and one can often be eliminated.

Derrick Holman, a vice president under Downing at the merged Mosby Matthew Bender, says Mosby was "not in a great state" when Downing arrived, "and the people who got it there needed to go." Like several others who worked directly for Downing before she came to Times Mirror, Holman flatly rejects the charge that she is autocratic and unwilling to listen to opposing views.

Barbara DeYoung, who worked with and for Downing at three companies over 10 years, says, "Anyone who gets to the top has a vision. "People in those positions tend to be people of strong opinions, and I would think one would want them to be. The difference between working with Kathryn and others of that same temperament is that Kathryn has always brought people together to contribute input."

DeYoung, now general manager of an online division at a legal research firm, says that she often saw Downing change her mind because of others' suggestions. If Downing were hostile to challenges from subordinates, she says, "I've certainly been in a couple of situations with her here. . . . I would have been gone."

So why has Downing been perceived so differently by many people at The Times? It may well be because she is so new to newspapers, and newspaper people are very different from the businesses and people she's been associated with before.

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