A Conversation With Mark Willes  | American Journalism Review
From AJR,   December 1997

A Conversation With Mark Willes   

Excerpts from Alicia C. Shepard's interview with Los Angeles Times Publisher Mark H. Willes:

By Unknown
     




AJR : So have you ever worked with such a recalcitrant work force?

MHW : Yeah, when I was a professor. The honest truth is our people aren't that recalcitrant. Our people have lots of questions, which they should have. They are very concerned that we stay sensitive to things which they hold near and dear, and I don't fault them for that. Those things are important. This whole issue that everybody is preoccupied with at the moment having to do with editorial independence is an important issue. If I weren't sensitive to it, they'd have every right to jump up and down. So for them to raise a little yellow flag and say: ``Hey, are you sensitive to this?" I think is absolutely appropriate. I've had far less difficulty with our own people than I have had with some people in other newspapers who kind of think we've somehow broken the tablets here.

AJR : Tell me about that. Where are you getting this sense that you've broken the tablets?

MHW : Well, I read everybody else's newspaper. You'd think we'd just done something terrible. As I've thought about it, there are two things about it I find curious. The first is for a profession that prides itself on objectivity, this immediate rush to judgment is a little surprising. If people want to say: ``There's a real issue here, we hope you are sensitive to it; we'll wait and see," I can understand that. But to kind of automatically assume that we are going to do all these terrible things, that we are going to let advertisers dictate the content of the paper, which we absolutely are not going to do, and would be silly to do, I find perplexing.

The second thing I also find perplexing is if you read the words and some of the quotes by people in the profession, it comes across that the only people who know how to make good moral judgments are journalists. The kind of ``nobody else is capable of understanding those issues and able to make those judgments"...not only do our own editors find that offensive, because they're perfectly capable of it, but I find that offensive because I'm capable of making them. This notion that you have to be in journalism 30 years in order to understand what's important, I find rather quaint.

AJR : Quaint? Or obnoxious or too sanctimonious?

MHW : It's certainly sanctimonious.

AJR : This whole thing of being called the cereal killer. Do you think you made a mistake comparing newspapers to cereal products? Do you wish you hadn't done that?

MHW : It clearly became a lightning rod. In that sense I wish I hadn't done it so early because people thought I was equating a newspaper with a box of cereal or detergent and, obviously, I was not. On the other hand, again for an industry that prides itself in looking out on the world, to kind of assume that there isn't anything to be learned by what others do strikes me as a rather strange conclusion....

For any successful business, the product has to be perceived as special by the buyer or user. Special in the case of a newspaper has everything to do now with not just readability but with this important element of trust. Can I believe what I see in the newspaper? Do they hype the truth? Do they tell me the truth? Do they tell me all the truth? Any time we do anything to damage that relationship with the reader, we basically damage our own franchise. Strictly from a business point of view, it is imperative that we not ever, ever lose sight of what journalists hold near and dear. So even if I didn't believe it personally, which I do, as a businessman I'd say, ``We can't do it."

AJR : So if it became known that advertisers were running the Los Angeles Times, your credibility would be shot and you would lose the value of your product?

MHW : Exactly. We would lose the whole thing.

AJR : I read that you said a newspaper ought to be a more crusading force. Talk about that.

MHW : I think newspapers do have an enormous opportunity to be a constructive force in their community. In many respects most newspapers are. But I think we can move to another level. What we do and most newspapers do is focus on a problem and bring a lot of attention to it, and then go on to the next problem. In the meantime, we don't have it on this one anymore. So if we can find those issues and those problems that are so central that if progress could be made it would make a significant difference in their lives in a significant, sustained way.... We are not talking about getting involved in politics. We are not talking about running things. But we are talking about using the platform and spotlight of a great newspaper to help others who have the desire and focus to make change.

AJR : How much are you going to be involved in editorial content?

MHW : In terms of reading it before it goes in the paper? Zero.

AJR : So are you having fun?

MHW : Some days [laughs]. Most days.


AJR : Does all of this attention surprise you?

MHW : I don't like the attention. I'd rather just do our own thing and show that it works.... The questions of journalists are getting more thoughtful, much less knee jerk. What really is it you are trying to get? What are you doing to protect the paper?

What I'm encouraged about is people are now thinking about it instead of reacting against it. That's an important thing from our point of view. I mean we don't know that we've got it right. I mean all we're going to do is try. And if it works, we'll continue to do it. And exactly like the Washington edition [which Willes eliminated and later reinstated], if we're finding it doesn't work, we'll say we made a mistake and we're going to fix it.

AJR : There does seem to be something with newspapers where you don't try something new unless you are sure you are going to succeed.

MHW : It's amazing. It's amazing. It's not the way the world is.

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