Signs of the Times
When Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band opened the opulent new Staples Center in LA on October 17, the Jersey Troubadour had a few choice words for those watching from the luxury skyboxes. "It's important for you folks up there...to come out of your rooms to see a rock show," Springsteen said. "[You have to] mix with people." Among the denizens of those $300,000-a-year corporate playrooms to whom Springsteen was addressing himself were Mike Miller of Mike Miller Toyota, a major advertiser in the Los Angeles Times, and Bob Zacky of the Zacky Farms chicken dynasty. Many interpreted their presence in the Times's box as a form of corporate apology for the paper's aggressive reporting, which had allegedly upset both men recently.
Yet within weeks of the concert, Times readers, indeed virtually everyone concerned with the future of journalism, had reason to be concerned about the goings-on in the Times box at Staples. Stories in the alternative New Times LA and the Los Angeles Business Journal reported that the Times had agreed not only to become a founding sponsor of the center, paying between $2.5 million and $3 million annually, but also to enter into a business relationship with the center that entailed sharing advertising profits on a special edition of the paper's magazine devoted to the wonder and glory of the new building and the men who built it. The center encouraged its suppliers to take out ads in the issue, so certain was it of favorable coverage.
That so obvious a journalistic taboo--sharing profits with the subject of coverage--could take place in so venerable an institution was just part of the shock. Almost immediately, 314 editorial employees signed a letter protesting the deal and demanding an investigation. Next came an admission from the paper's editor, Michael Parks, that he knew nothing about the deal and from the paper's publisher, Kathryn Downing, that she entered into it owing to a "fundamental misunderstanding" of basic journalistic principle. When Otis Chandler, publisher of the paper from 1960 to 1980 and the man who steered it to greatness, sent a letter to be read aloud in the newsroom condemning Downing and her boss, Mark Willes, for a decision that was "unbelievably stupid and unprofessional," all hell broke loose at the paper.
Reporters spoke of "bloodlust in the newsroom" and crowed for Downing's head. She refused to quit, terming Chandler, whose statue graces the building's lobby, a "bitter old man" and refused. Parks agreed to appoint the paper's respected media writer, David Shaw, to do an in-depth study of the incident, but otherwise the two sides are stalemated. Chandler does not control parent company Times Mirror's board of directors, which appears to be backing Downing and Willes, no doubt a reflection of the company's stock price rising from 23 in mid-1995--when Willes was brought in as publisher and CEO--to nearly 70 today. And amid all the hoopla about Chandler's dramatic letter and Downing's incredible admission--the person at the top operates from a "fundamental misunderstanding" of her own profession--the most important issues in the controversy have been obscured.
Speaking broadly, these issues are two: First, has Mark Willes, former CFO of General Mills with no journalistic experience, killed one of America's great papers? That answer has to be yes and no. Ever since his inflammatory announcement that he would deploy a "bazooka if necessary to blow up the wall" between the paper's business and editorial departments--"church and state" in newspaper parlance--Willes created the conditions for the Staples deal. Reporters and editors were encouraged to work with the advertising staff to write business-friendly stories. Following the Staples incident, Narda Zacchino, the paper's associate editor and readers' representative, quoted a political consultant who joked, "What's the going rate to get my guy on Page One?"
But even today, the Times remains a house of many mansions. Steve Wasserman runs a remarkably literate weekly book review section, for example, whose uncompromising ethos would seem to contradict everything that is said about the paper. It is a paper, in other words, with a lot of decline left in it, even though the Willes/Downing forces appear almost certain to prevail in the end.
A more important question, however, is whether the crisis is a sign of the Times or the times. Can journalism's church/state wall, so central to the integrity of the news process, survive anywhere anymore, in an age of endless media conglomeratization and combination with nonmedia enterprises? The Times/Staples deal is big news today, but how many newspapers, magazines and TV and radio stations are operating under similarly corruptive agreements?
Downing was recently buoyed by a story in the Boston Globe noting that in a 1998 Presstime magazine survey of 339 newspapers, nearly 60 percent said they had marketing committees that included editorial employees. Even the Globe itself, in 1995 when the Fleet Center opened in Boston, entered into a deal whereby it paid the center a commission for ads it sold in a special supplement the paper published celebrating its opening. Rick Gulla, the paper's spokesman, explains that "we were not a corporate sponsor of the center. We paid for our own box there. We did not agree to share revenue; we simply paid them a sales commission on ads that they sold." Still, Gulla adds, "it would not happen today."
The distinctions between the Globe's position regarding the Fleet Center and the Times deal with Staples are not trivial, but they are rather difficult to explain to an average reader who is trying to figure out whether he can trust his local newspaper to tell him the truth about a business with whom it is in bed. It would behoove the corporate controllers of our few remaining journalistic treasures to understand that the price of their exclusive focus on wringing every last drop of profit from these institutions is the destruction of the trust that is their most valuable long-term asset. As Springsteen would have been happy to tell the Times owners and editors, had they stepped out of their skyboxes to hear him: "You can't just walk away from the price you pay."