The way things are going, it's almost certain that the name of Mark Willes, the chairman of the Times Mirror Co., will be bestowed on some journalism award. He has done such an awful job running the Los Angeles Times--smashing good and worthy journalistic traditions--that he is bound to make amends in the way the wretched Joseph Pulitzer did. Willes's prize will be in journalistic ethics.
It was Willes, brought in from General Mills to punch up the stock, who decided that the wall between advertising and news had to be breached. It was quaint but inefficient and made very little business sense. He hired a publisher who agreed with him, and she, in turn, negotiated a deal with an advertiser who was also the sole subject of a special Sunday magazine--the brand-new Staples Center sports arena. It got half of the ad revenues.
When the arrangement was revealed (by a competing paper), the Times' journalists howled. Journalists are not supposed to have financial arrangements with the people or institutions they cover. That's a conflict of interest, clear and simple. Anyone in journalism knows that but not, incredibly, the Times' own publisher, Kathryn Downing. Ultimately, she apologized for entertaining a "fundamental misunderstanding" of what journalists do.
What a nifty choice of words. It turns out that I, too, have a "fundamental misunderstanding" of how such an ignoramus could become the publisher of a major--and very important--American newspaper. How was she chosen to run the place when, by her own admission, she knows so little about the news business? Why is she still in her job?
The answer can be found in a single number: 69. That was the price of Times Mirror stock on the day this column was written. It has risen under Willes and has done particularly well in the past year--up from 52. The Times' journalists may be unhappy, but its stockholders are not. In fact, the board is pleased as punch.
Poor Willes. He must have looked around and concluded that no one's reputation ever suffers from trashing a good news organization. Take, for instance, the big three networks--ABC, CBS and NBC. None of their news divisions is what it used to be. They have all closed bureaus, reduced their staffs and focused--as if through gauze--on soft news. If George W. Bush cannot name important foreign leaders it must be because he's been watching TV news.
Yet you can hardly open a business magazine nowadays without seeing a salute to Jack Welch, the top guy at General Electric, which owns NBC. The man's a bloomin' genius, we are told, and never--as far I know--is held accountable for NBC News's not being what it used to be. The same holds for Michael Eisner, head man at Disney and thus the ultimate boss of ABC. Two years ago, he took $575 million in stock and salary out of the company, but no one ever asks him how come his network is down to a handful of foreign correspondents. The story's no different at CBS. Under its previous owner, Laurence Tisch, stockholders did well. No one could say the same about CBS News.
These news organizations are now infinitesimal pieces of much larger corporations. Their core businesses are far removed from news. A newspaper, though, is a different story. Its core business is integrity. News is not a product like a tire or a paper towel. It is what we journalists say it is. The reader has to believe. So, of course, do we. A newspaper's "brand" is trust--trust in its judgment, its independence, its values. That's what remains constant. The news changes every day.
In this regard, Willes and Downing have cheapened their own product. After all, some of what their ad salesmen are selling is the reputation of a fine newspaper.
In their own terms--in the actuarial way these two executives measure their newspaper's performance--the publisher and her boss will escape an accounting. As long as the stock stays high, so will they. But in their own lingo, they ought to know that they have diluted their paper's reputation and weakened the brand. If greatness could be crunched into a number, they would know what to do--quit. As long as they remain, so will questions about the Times' journalistic practices. That, as they might say, is the bottom line.