Staples Stumble

Larry Jinks
Poynter Fellow

Even before the announcement of the likely Tribune Co. takeover of Times Mirror, there was reason to believe the Los Angeles Times would become a better, stronger newspaper because of the Staples fiasco.

I also think there’s a chance—perhaps a good chance—that a lot of other journalistic institutions will be better, too, because of what happened in Los Angeles.

That may not be a conventional reading of the situation. Still, I think a case can be made that the leaders of the Times have learned a lesson that would serve the paper well, and their experience offers a model that can help others.

Consider these paragraphs from the "Principles of the Los Angeles Times," prominently presented by the publisher and the editor in the Dec. 19, 1999, edition:

"Our duty is to the truth. We pledge to seek and report the truth with honesty, accuracy, fairness, and courage. By seeking truth and sharing understanding, we will strive for the improvement of society.

"We will show no favoritism. Our newsroom will operate free of influence from public and private institutions, political officials, and advertisers.

"We hold that journalistic excellence is the soundest foundation for our success and that the editorial integrity of the Los Angeles Times is its most precious asset. For this, we will be vigilant among ourselves and open with our readers."

That’s about as noble a pledge of journalistic rectitude as you’ll find anywhere. We all are familiar with high-minded journalistic statements that aren’t quite reflected in the behavior of those issuing them. However, the Times’s statement was the result of a traumatic experience, giving it greater weight than most such commitments. We can be sure a great many people inside and outside the Times will be watching closely to see how performance matches principle, whatever the ownership situation.

What this issue is really about is protecting the independence of news operations. As regrettable as the Staples agreement was, it has served the purpose of putting questions of editorial independence under a large and sustained spotlight.

One of the many remarkable things about the Staples story is the role played by people in the Times newsroom, once what had happened was clear.

The same kind of controversy in a paper with a less robust tradition of editorial independence would have had a different outcome. Because the Times has been forced to wrestle with the issues in public, the rest of us have had an opportunity to learn.

David Shaw, the Times’s respected media critic, published a 30,000-word report in the paper that emphasized the turmoil in the newsroom and the failures in communication throughout the organization, factors that suggest difficult times ahead.

Both in the Shaw account and inWilliam Prochnau’s impressive study of the Times in the January/February American Journalism Review, the Times came through as dysfunctional in many ways. There is plenty here to arm those who are convinced American journalism is almost beyond redemption.

Still, I’m optimistic that the Times will emerge a healthier, more solid institution. The Tribune Co. must agree. There is a very public agreement on basic principles from business and editorial leaders. As a business, the Times has a fundamentally healthy franchise in a vibrant, growing market. As a newspaper, it has a large, talented staff and a fresh commitment. Although it won’t be easy for the Times to heal the wounds of the last few months, there are strong incentives to do so.

As for the rest of the journalistic establishment, the lessons of Staples will only be learned with a lot of determination, beginning with an understanding that they need to be learned.

A Summary of What Happened

Last Oct. 10, 1999, the Los Angeles Times published a 168-page special issue of its Sunday magazine, devoted entirely to the city’s new sports arena, the Staples Center. Later, the staff of the Times learned from stories in other publications that the Times had agreed to split the advertising profits from the magazine with the Staples Center. Offended by what they saw as a significant breach of journalistic ethics, more than 300 Times reporters and editors signed a petition demanding that their publisher, Kathryn Downing, apologize and undertake a review to determine if the paper had any similar financial relationships with other news subjects.

Downing did apologize, and both she and Mark Willes, the controversial CEO of the Times’s parent company, admitted the Staples deal was a mistake. Michael Parks, the paper’s editor, said that he had not known of the arrangement until after the magazine was printed (although Shaw’s article raised some questions about the timing of Parks’s knowledge).

Chandler Weighs In

Eventually, 71-year-old Otis Chandler, who was credited with making the Times one of the country’s top papers when he was publisher between 1960 and 1980, weighed in. He wrote a letter that was read to the newsroom in which he called the handling of the Staples Center matter "unbelievably stupid." He was highly critical of Downing and Willes.

The Times assigned Shaw to investigate and promised to publish his findings, which the paper did on Dec. 20. A day earlier, Downing and Parks signed the front-page statement setting the stage for the statement of principles quoted earlier.

The Times later elevated Leo Wolinsky, one of the strongest critics of the Staples deal, to the number two editor position. It also has appointed Ardith Hilliard as associate editor to monitor its ethical performance, guided by the principles and by guidelines designed to help carry them out.

My point here is not to dwell at length on the Los Angeles Times, but rather to focus on what the Times’s experience can mean to other papers and indeed to all kinds of other journalistic institutions.

The Staples controversy has attracted enormous attention in part because it came at a time when many journalists (and caring observers of the journalistic world) have been increasingly worried that journalistic standards are eroding, largely because of business pressures.

Mark Willes, who came to Times-Mirror from General Mills, became almost a symbol of the commitment to apply business principles to increase shareholder value in media companies, a commitment that has its own ethical underpinning.

For newsrooms, this has sometimes meant reduced staffs and has frequently meant more pressure to increase readership (or viewership for television stations), and, of course, revenues, sometimes by unconventional means. Market research has become a major tool. And pressure has grown to offer readers and viewers what they say they want, as opposed to what news executives think they need.

The Internet revolution has exacerbated the natural tension in all of this and complicated questions of journalistic principles. Add to that the sometimes uneasy relationship between news and advertising in the more established journalistic cultures, the influence of E-commerce, and the absence of tradition in the still-developing world of Internet news, and there is real reason for concern. No less an observer of the Internet revolution than author and consultant Esther Dyson has said, "Of all the things that trouble me about the Internet, aside from the fact that it reflects human nature, and some of that is pretty ugly, it is how journalism will be funded."

Focus on Critical Issues

As I indicated above, the advantage of the Staples Center case in looking at all this is that it focuses dramatically on a critical issue of journalistic ethics—maybe the critical issue: the independence and integrity of the news operation. For journalism to have credibility, the consumer needs to have faith that the journalists’ "duty is to the truth" as the Times’s new statement of principles declares.

This means the truth independently arrived at, without improper pressure from commercial or other special interests. Even though Times executives say the Staples issue of the Times Magazine was written and edited with no knowledge of the profit-sharing deal, the circumstances are so questionable that the independence of the news operation was compromised, in the view of most observers.

This basic "duty to the truth," implying a news operation in which journalists make judgments for solid journalistic reasons, ultimately is crucial to the credibility of any journalistic institution, be it print, broadcast, or electronic.

I realize the lines are blurred in all directions. American journalism has grown and prospered in a system that asks the profit motive and public service reporting to coexist comfortably. Coexist, they have, but not always comfortably.

Reports in Editor & Publisher and elsewhere remind us that ethical questions abound and ethical lapses are common throughout the journalistic world. After the Staples story broke, E&P asked editors and publishers a series of questions about it. Almost half the publishers polled (and 19% of the editors) found the Staples deal acceptable (although most of them said the editors and the public should have been told about it). Some saw no problem with suggesting that advertisers should be included in particular news stories.

We all have seen sections that are designed primarily to sell advertising. There are too many reports about stories being killed because they would offend advertisers. Any group of experienced journalists has tales to tell of situations in which business pressures outweighed journalistic purity.

Protecting Independence

Still, the principle of protecting the independence of newsrooms has developed and spread in this country, especially in the last 75 years. It has been strongest in some of the larger and more respected organizations, but it has also been a force in many smaller ones as well.

One reason this happened is that many wise publishers understood that by protecting the independence of their journalists, they were establishing a strong base of credibility that helped sell both subscriptions and advertising. The separation principle, fostered in newspapers, has had some carryover in newsmagazines and in television news operations, although reports of fuzzy ethics in local TV news operations are common.

Much has been made of "the wall" between business and editorial departments at the Los Angeles Times, and of Willes’s vows to tear it down. (Willes has pointed out that the failure to communicate with editors was a major problem in the Staples situation.)

While I think some distance between news and advertising employees below the top levels is desirable—or at least clear guidelines about what kind of contact is proper—it is too simple to talk as if a wall is the key to the kinds of problems considered here.

A wall may work well in a newspaper with a very strong proprietor/publisher who serves as a wise ultimate judge. Still, it is important to remember that journalism and business have to join at some point—and always have had to in privately-owned papers and television stations and networks. In today’s world, with ownership usually distant and management professional, it is especially important for there to be a lot of conversation between editors and business executives, and certainly between editors and publishers. Where it’s appropriate, the conversations need to include executives of the owning corporations.

What’s most important is that they be candid, recognizing that everybody involved has a vested interest in spelling out defensible ground rules—and that the public does, too.

One of the strongest business arguments for doing this is the alarming decline in the credibility ratings of journalism generally in recent years. There are many and complex reasons for this, but the most important is that too often newspapers and other news media have failed to meet basic tests of accuracy, fairness, and dedication to the public good.

Even though much of the public is inarticulate in expressing what it expects from journalism, and frequently rewards sensational reporting with high readership and high ratings, we all know that consistently credible journalistic performance is the best long-range answer to credibility problems.

Journalism Serves Citizens

It also is at the heart of the responsibility of journalism to the public, a responsibility that every journalistic entity, however owned, should acknowledge. I like the way Lee Hills, a great journalist himself and a very successful CEO of Knight Ridder, put it a few years ago:

"The emphasis on good journalism should be on serving citizens, not on serving newspapers or TV. People have to know what’s going on if they want to govern themselves. The mission of journalism doesn’t change, whether it’s on paper, online, or on the air."

At the Los Angeles Times, Willes had talked about his dedication to good journalism. He and others had done a great deal of talking about the importance of communication. What the Staples deal showed was that they hadn’t spent enough time talking to one another about the most important topic of all—basic values.

The lesson for other journalistic institutions is clear: Have those conversations before a crisis comes.

Everyone involved in the enterprise needs to understand that the value of running a news operation in a way that keeps news judgments free of improper business pressure is not just idealistic. There needs to be a broad understanding that an earned reputation for credibility pays off in circulation and advertising results.

Publishers and editors and station managers and news directors should be talking very explicitly about how to draw lines, about what’s permissible and what isn’t, about credibility and how to earn it. Those conversations should lead to clear statements of principles and detailed guidelines.

The world that journalism deals with is so fluid and difficult to predict, no written statement will offer a solution to all problems. But writing it down helps establish rules of behavior—and makes it more difficult to explain lapses in ethical performance. The experience of developing guidelines should be a healthy, cooperative one.

There’s a lot to work out in journalism these days. There are many issues beyond this one that business leaders and newsroom leaders need to consider together, but protecting journalistic independence is a good place to start.

[Jinks currently serves as a Poynter Fellow, working on the Institute's Journalism, Business, and Values program. He is a board member of McClatchy Newspapers, Inc. and chairman of the Knight Foundation’s Journalism Advisory Board. He retired in 1994, after having served as executive editor of The Miami Herald, editor and publisher of the San Jose Mercury News, and senior vice-president of news for Knight Ridder.]

  • Bill Mitchell

    Bill Mitchell is a Poynter Affiliate who most recently led Poynter’s entrepreneurial and international programs and served as a member of its faculty. Previously, Bill headed for 10 years.


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