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Blundering Times

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.”

Still another question not addressed at the meeting: If editorial did produce the magazine with no interference from the business side, why was the final product such a puff piece? The dozen-odd stories in the magazine included profiles of “Six Who Made It Happen,” an architectural review, and a tour of arena sky boxes that closed, “What the heck . . . This is L.A. If you‘ve got it, flaunt it.”

The brief profile of Staples Center developer Ed Roski managed to quote him saying, “We didn’t understand that . . . when you deal with the public, they have a right to know,” without once mentioning the millions Roski has made from controversial redevelopment deals he cut with public funds in the City of Industry.

One story did achieve a modicum of balance -- a piece by Tony Perry which found that sports arenas have a mixed record as anchors for urban redevelopment. But that article was based solely on a tour of other cities. No local voices were included -- perhaps because even downtown boosters like Joel Kotkin are dismissing the new arena as another strategic development blunder.

“I thought it was a pretty rah-rah take,” Boyarsky commented in an interview. “Strictly speaking, there was no editorial conflict. But the whole thing was a promotional vehicle,” added Brett Israel, a former editor of the magazine who is now an assistant national editor. “The broader issue is, why is the paper becoming so promotional?”

The obvious answer is Mark Willes, chairman of the board of the paper‘s corporate parent, Times Mirror. Willes announced three years ago that he was determined to break down the traditional walls separating business and editorial at the paper, and since then has pressed his advertising and newsroom managers to become partners in raising circulation and revenue. The result has been a steady escalation in stock prices, and a recurring cycle of editorial embarrassment.

Heikes reflected on the pattern in an interview: “Something will be done that the news division feels compromises the paper, something is published in the press, the staff is outraged, the managers apologize . . . Is this the price we pay for bringing in publishers who are terrific business people but don’t come out of journalism?”

The answer, at least in the case of the L.A. Times, is not necessarily. After all, Tom Johnson, the best-regarded publisher since family scion Otis Chandler left the paper, had only a limited background in the media. But certainly the managers at the Times acknowledge they have a real problem on their hands. At the meeting last week, Downing said she may enroll in a journalism training program. “The question is, how do I come up the learning curve faster?” she said.

Many observers inside and outside the paper say that more will be required for the Times to maintain its reputation for integrity and journalistic independence. One key measure, advocated at the meeting by veteran legal-affairs reporter Henry Weinstein, would be to conduct a thorough investigation of the Staples Center affair and publish the results in the paper. Tuesday‘s letter brought added pressure for such a story.

Tom Rosenstiel, a former Times reporter and now chairman of the Project for Journalistic Excellence in Washington, D.C., agreed. “What’s happened is not that they‘ve sold their principles out but that they’ve created doubt. Nobody‘s perfect, but it’s very important now that they admit they made a mistake -- and that means taking the lead in investigating and reporting what happened in their own pages,” Rosenstiel said. “That‘s in part what helped the Washington Post survive the Janet Cook incident -- it led all the other papers in uncovering exactly what happened.”

Also pending is a full review of other non-editorial promotional ventures, including sponsorship of festivals and conferences, like the annual book fair, investment conference and health fair that have become popular with Times managers as marketing and advertising vehicles.

Some observers doubt the Staples affair will temper the focus on revenue and profit at the Times, especially considering that Times Mirror stock is at an all-time high. According to one well-placed source, when Downing reported on the ethical imbroglio at a Times Mirror board meeting Thursday, the matter was disposed of in less than five minutes.

 

Editorial staff at the paper, however, seem unlikely to accept a brush-off, and are talking about changing the course Willes has charted so far. “The idea of breaking down the walls was a novel one, and we gave it the best shot we could,” Metro editor Leo Wolinsky said Tuesday. “But it erased all the rules, and it’s not clear that it brought any results. Now we have to see what kinds of rules we can put back in force.”

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