Inside the third-floor newsroom of the Los Angeles Times, a black-and-white portrait maintains a silent vigil. Up and down the vast space, where a couple hundred of the reporters, photographers and editors at one of the nation's biggest dailies are hard at work, Otis Chandler, the newspaper's well-loved former publisher, has suddenly appeared.
Photocopied portraits of Chandler, 71--in pinstripe suit and dark tie, and bearing a serious, intelligent gaze--are posted everywhere, decorating the wall beside the senior metro reporters and the national desk, all around the copy desk, at the state desk, past the mail room, all the way into the Calendar features section.
"It's to ward off evil spirits," says a wry Ann O'Neill, who covers civil and criminal courts. "It's like when you see a Frank Sinatra picture in an Italian restaurant; like a guardian angel."
Which is apparently what L.A. Times reporters feel they need in the aftermath of a humiliating episode in which the current publisher, Kathryn Downing, had to apologize for an ethical lapse that stemmed from her "fundamental misunderstanding"--as she put it--of journalistic principles.
During a highly unusual staff meeting on Oct. 28, Downing asked the newsroom's forgiveness for having negotiated a profit-sharing deal with the new Staples Center sports arena in downtown Los Angeles. The two companies shared a whopping $2 million in advertising revenues for an Oct. 10 Times Sunday magazine devoted to the center.
The deal, apparently reached without the knowledge of the editorial staff and without informing Times readers, was a serious journalistic no-no even in an era when Wall Street pushes venerable media institutions for ever-higher profits. Simply put: Journalists are not supposed to have financial relationships with the subjects they cover.
And the mess quickly got messier. What were observers to make of Downing's admission of ignorance of newspaper ethics? Was it worse or was it better that Times Mirror Chief Executive Officer Mark Willes--Downing's boss and patron--commented that the lapse was "exactly a consequence of having people in the publisher's job who don't have experience in newspapers"? And what of Editor Michael Parks, who told his reporters that he did not know about the arrangement until after the magazine was printed, but learned of it before the issue hit the newsstands?
And right in the middle of this roiling pot landed a scathing five-page letter from Chandler, scion of the family that had a controlling stake of the newspaper since 1882, spitting venom over what he called management's "unbelievably stupid and unprofessional handling of this Staples Center special section."
He wrote, "I am sad to see what I think may be a serious decline of The Los Angeles Times as one of the great papers in the country."
The letter, read to a hushed newsroom last Wednesday right on deadline by City Editor Bill Boyarsky, was met with stunned silence. Then prolonged applause.
On Friday, reporters walking into the newsroom found a thick stack of portraits of Chandler, which they promptly plastered everywhere.
A Shaken Trust
"People are feeling a little bruised," sighs Scott Kraft, the national editor. He has agreed to be interviewed on the record, but has taken refuge in the cafeteria. Over his shoulder, a monitor--one of several throughout the building--reminds employees of the Times Mirror stock price, which has tripled since Willes took over the paper in 1995. "Times Mirror stock 70 11/16," it reads. "Closed up 1/4."
Kraft has had to explain the turmoil of the past two weeks to his correspondents scattered across the country--the revolt by the newsroom staff that led to the publisher's apology, the initial refusal by editor Parks to investigate the affair, then his reversal of the decision. Last week veteran media reporter David Shaw was given the assignment to do an in-depth article. Parks, Downing and Willes all declined to be interviewed for this article, citing Shaw's investigation.
"The amazing thing is that the editorial side here is really good," Kraft says. "They're world-class journalists. That's why they were so offended, so ashamed by what happened. I think most people think it's a good thing that Kathryn acknowledged her mistake. But it doesn't make you less sad about it."
Part of the humiliation came from the fact that most staffers learned about the profit-sharing deal from an article in a local alternative weekly, New Times. But the disappointment also came from a sense that this sort of ethical breach was a disaster waiting to happen. Willes, a former General Mills executive, came to Times Mirror vowing to eliminate the traditional wall between the editorial and business sides of the newspaper, to boost profits with cost-cutting and buyouts (a practice that earned him the nickname "cereal killer") and to aggressively increase circulation. This posture won Willes no small measure of suspicion in his own newsroom, confirmed by the Staples deal.
Henry Weinstein, a legal reporter, was one of a half-dozen members of the newsroom staff who stormed into Parks's office and demanded an internal investigative piece. "This from my point of view was a very serious lapse in judgment," he says by phone from Boston, where he's on assignment. "We were all horrified by this. It confirmed your worst suspicions of what would happen if this wall was broken down, and it showed the need for maintaining the wall."
Says Amy Wallace, an entertainment reporter: "As a staff we've been shaken. We want to be proud of the paper, and we still are in a lot of ways. But trust--" she pauses. "There has been a sense of what shoe will drop next. People are gratified that the paper is taking a hard look at itself and will communicate that to its readers. But I think there's a wait-and-see attitude."
Washington bureau chief Doyle McManus and his entire staff of 35 reporters also signed the petition demanding an investigation. "The irony is that over time, Mark Willes and Kathryn Downing had both erased a lot of the initial concerns," he says. "For two years the experiment appeared to be working pretty well. . . . But what was not apparent at the time was underneath there was a lot of creeping, cumulative pressure from the advertising side to mix editorial and promotional content. Or in a few cases, attempts by advertising representatives to intervene in the editorial process."
One of those occasions had already involved the Staples Center, when sports reporter David Wharton--who was working on the special magazine edition--was asked by arena officials to refer to it in print as "Staples Center" rather than "the Staples Center." Wharton consulted with his editors, then declined the request.
But that wasn't the end of it. In late September, "an advertising person walked into the magazine offices and complained strenuously about the 'the,' how we had to get it out of there, how the client was getting very upset," says Wharton. An argument ensued between the magazine's editors and the advertising representative. Two weeks later a memo signed by Parks stated that the newspaper's style was being changed, and the "the" was to be struck. When Wharton asked Parks about it, he says, the editor responded that the Staples Center " 'should be able to call themselves whatever they want.' "
An arcane detail, perhaps. "The point is," says Wharton, "when things like this happen, it casts suspicion on everything."
An Internal Affair
Associate Editor and readers' representative Narda Zacchino has spent almost 30 years of her career at the L.A. Times, and now has the unenviable task of fielding complaints about the Staples magazine incident. Two hundred-plus letters, e-mails, phone messages and faxes have poured into the paper in the past week.
A log of telephone messages lies on her desk in corporate headquarters on the sixth floor, with the main ideas highlighted in yellow marker. "I believe Ms. Downing should resign," one reads. Zacchino quickly moves the paper out of view.
"Basically readers are saying that this shakes their faith, their trust in the paper," says Zacchino. "People are questioning a lot of things. They're asking whether advertisers have influence in our stories. Questioning--our integrity." She shakes her head. "What concerns me are these questions over whether our reporting is honest: 'Does such and such a corporation have a deal with you?' "
The people who know the answer to that question--whether there were other profit-sharing deals before the Staples Center--are down the hall, in spacious, glass-walled offices that look onto a light-filled atrium. Parks is there, working quietly at his desk; he splits his time between this office and another in the newsroom. Just across from him, Downing--a lawyer who came from the publishing industry--stands chatting with corporate flack Martha Goldstein.
But they are not talking to the press, and Downing blanches visibly when a reporter knocks on the door. Goldstein quickly escorts the reporter off the sixth floor.
Safely ensconced in her office, she repeats the company line: "From Kathryn and Mark's perspective, the announcement that our own reporter will be writing a story . . . is a step we think will help."
But Goldstein says she has been disturbed by the media coverage of the problems at the Times, saying the stories have lacked "context." "Very few journalists have an awareness of how advertising departments operate," she says. "Has anyone made an attempt to see what the common practices are? It would be helpful to know."
Would she be willing to allow access to the Times advertising department to get that context?
No, she says curtly, citing Shaw's investigation.
How much has fundamentally changed at the Los Angeles Times since the Staples scandal? It's hard to say. Chandler, while a hero in the newsroom, has no formal power; he has retired from the board of directors and is often at odds with his more conservative relatives. In fact, the Wall Street Journal last week ran a story citing board members' satisfaction with the way Times Mirror is being run.
Reporters are feeling repercussions--however small--from the affair. A political source snidely remarked to reporter Jim Newton last week, "How much does it cost to get a story on the front page of the L.A. Times?" An agent approached entertainment writer Wallace at a premiere and hissed, "She has to go," referring to Downing.
That same undercurrent buzzes through the newsroom, where journalists feel empowered by management's stand-down. Downing has called for a set of formal guidelines to govern relations between business and editorial sides. But at the staff meeting, she rejected the suggestion that perhaps she should resign.
Last Thursday night Willes called city editor Boyarsky up to his office for a chat. Instead of firing him, as many in the newsroom feared, he engaged Boyarsky in a 45-minute philosophical discussion about journalism.
Boyarsky, for one, is mollified, at least for the moment. "I maintain my trust in Michael [Parks]. He returns the confidence in me," he says, taking a short break Friday before the daily deadline pressure kicked in. And what about Downing? Boyarsky ducks the question. "The ultimate decision-maker, as far as I'm concerned, is Michael," he says. "I really believe that the only way forward is to go, do stories, work hard and assume everything is fine."
CAPTION: Feeling the heat: Times Mirror CEO Mark Willes and L.A. Times Publisher Kathryn Downing.
CAPTION: Former publisher Otis Chandler has taken management to task.