By Hillel Aron
By Joseph Tsidulko
By Patrick Range McDonald
By David Futch
By Hillel Aron
By Dennis Romero
By Jill Stewart
By Dennis Romero
It‘s been a week since L.A. Times publisher Kathryn Downing delivered an unprecedented mea culpa to an assembly of several hundred editors and reporters in the paper’s cafeteria, but the journalistic uprising there seems only to be accelerating.
On Tuesday, Downing and Times editor Michael Parks told a monthly meeting of middle managers that they had decided not to go forward with a journalistic investigation of the paper‘s partnership with the operators of the Staples Center -- a partnership that produced the largest-ever edition of the Times Sunday magazine, but which has also generated a firestorm of criticism.
That same day, however, 40 members of the paper’s Metro staff and Washington, D.C., bureau signed a letter demanding just such a journalistic investigation. “The Times owes nothing less to its readers and to its staff. Other papers have written about the Staples controversy and will continue to do so. We need to do the definitive piece and do it first,” the letter said.
Parks declined to answer calls from the Weekly asking for comment, but reportedly said at the meeting Tuesday morning, “We know what happened. I don‘t see anything more to discover.” All that afternoon, however, Parks was fielding inquiries from staff members who asked him to explain his position.
It’s a routine to which Parks seems to be growing accustomed. Just last week, Parks told The New York Times, “I really don‘t know the details on Staples.” A day later, L.A. Times magazine editor Drex Heikes disclosed that he’d alerted Parks to the revenue-sharing deal -- which called for the Times and the arena partners to split the magazine‘s $2 million in revenues -- before the October 10 edition was distributed.
When news of the partnership broke two weeks ago, more than 300 staffers signed a petition declaring they were “appalled by the paper entering into hidden financial partnerships on editorial products with the subjects we’re writing about.”
In fact, the idea for producing an issue devoted solely to the arena opening came from the business side of the paper. According to managing editor John Lindsay, the editorial staff of the magazine tried to kill the project, but was ordered to go forward by business-side managers.
By last Thursday, Downing and Parks apparently decided they needed to respond, convening a special meeting of the newspaper‘s editors and reporters. Downing opened by offering “a profound apology to each of you,” and then a slate of specific reforms, including a written policy on editorial independence. As one veteran reporter put it, “Kathryn looked stricken. She was clearly upset.”
But while staffers give her credit for enduring more than two hours of often-hostile questioning, critics inside and outside the paper are still trying to figure out what it all meant.
They wonder, for example, just what role managers of the Staples Center had in selling advertising for the October 10 issue of the paper’s Sunday magazine.
In her address to the staff, Downing conceded that the paper had produced that edition of the magazine as part of a “revenue sharing” agreement, which she termed “a major, major mistake.”
According to a reporter who took notes, Downing added there was “absolutely no Staples involvement in selling ads.” In the first story published on the deal, however, in the October 11 L.A. Business Journal, columnist Dan Turner reported that “the arena‘s involvement was to contact the team, concessionaires and various corporate sponsors and ask them to buy ads.”
Downing did not return calls seeking clarification for this story.
Reporters and critics outside the paper also wonder just what role the editorial department had in producing the Staples Center edition of the magazine. Downing and Times editor Michael Parks both say that Parks was kept in the dark on the financial partnership, but many remain skeptical.
The question is important because many writers and editors resisted the whole idea of the package in the months before it was produced -- including such newsroom leaders as city editor Bill Boyarsky and John Lindsay. “I was against this thing from the beginning,” Lindsay said in an interview. “You don’t do editorial material about people you have partnerships with.”
Did Parks resist calls to reconsider the project because of the paper‘s financial commitment? At the meeting, Downing said she did not tell Parks in order “to protect editorial.” Yet Drex Heikes learned of a profit-sharing arrangement after the magazine had been printed -- but before it was distributed -- and he told Parks. “He may have been deceived by omission, but when he did know about its real nature, he elected not to do anything,” one editor commented off the record. “Why didn’t we simply print an announcement of what the thing was? Was he confused? Were there discussions? What occurred?”
Parks‘ being out of the loop may have been worse than his consent, said Geneva Overholser, a press watchdog and former ombudsman with the Washington Post. “It troubles me that there was no editorial voice represented in this decision. If they’ve torn down the walls [between advertising and news], then I can‘t understand why Parks wasn’t at the table.”