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American Journalism Review
Where There's a Willes  | American Journalism Review
From AJR,   November 1997

Where There's a Willes   

Los Angeles Times Editor Shelby Coffey III steps down, Michael Parks steps up and Times President, Chairman and CEO Mark H. Willes continues to blow away the wall between the business and editorial departments.

By Alicia C. Shepard
Alicia C. Shepard is a former AJR senior writer and NPR ombudsman.     

THERE WAS AN AIR OF ANTICLIMAX surrounding the October 9 announcement of major changes at the Los Angeles Times.

After all, most members of the staff had already read that, after eight years, Shelby Coffey III was stepping down as editor of the nation's fourth largest paper. ``It's great to have to read what's happening at your paper in the Washington Post,'' one reporter said.'

But there was no shortage of suspense about what lies ahead. Times Mirror President, Chairman and CEO Mark H. Willes, who named himself Times publisher in September, was launching a perhaps unprecedented overhaul of a major newspaper's news operation. Many inside--and outside--the newsroom will watch closely to see exactly what he means by his expressed determination to blow up the wall between the editorial and business departments.

His plan includes naming business managers for newsroom departments, each of which will be required to prepare business plans and profit and loss statements. Willes, who had no newspaper experience before becoming Times Mirror's chief in 1995, made it clear that he doesn't expect the A section, Metro and the opinion sections to be self-supporting, but other departments, such as sports and business, will be expected to pay for themselves.

Willes, who wants to increase Times circulation by 500,000, a 50 percent jump, also imposed an unusual structure on the 1,000-plus member news staff. While newsrooms generally have one managing editor, the Times will have four reporting to new Editor Michael Parks.

The newly crowned deputies are:

  • Leo Wolinsky, managing editor in charge of news. He will oversee the Times' California coverage, business section, page one and the photo department. Wolinsky has served as assistant managing editor and metro editor.

  • Karen Wada, managing editor in charge of national and foreign news, special enterprise reporting and the Times polls. Wada has been deputy managing editor.

  • John Lindsay, managing editor for features, who will also oversee editorial art, design and graphics. Lindsay has been executive editor of the Calendar section and an AME.

  • John Arthur, managing editor in charge of the Times' regional editions in Orange and Ventura counties and the San Fernando Valley. He will also oversee the sports and travel sections. Arthur has been editor of the paper's Valley edition.

  • Coffey, 50, a smooth, articulate veteran of the Washington Post, said he did not know what he would do next. His tenure at the paper included such turbulent events as the Los Angeles riots and the O.J. Simpson trial, and also a dramatic shift in corporate style that followed Willes' move to Times Mirror from General Mills.

    Willes implemented draconian cutbacks in Times Mirror, including the closing of New York Newsday, doing wonderful things for the company's stock price in the process. There was widespread speculation that, once the activist Willes became publisher of the Times, the paper's editor would have little room to maneuver.

    ``I spent years in Washington, D.C., watching the `Little Caesars' of the town cling, often way too long, to the perks of office,'' Coffey said. ``But there's a season for everything, and mine here has ended.''

    Coffey's resignation quickly followed the surprise retirement September 12 of Publisher Richard T. Schlosberg III. It was widely believed that Schlosberg, 53, who said he ``wanted to spend more time'' with his family, had been elbowed aside.

    The shifts at the Times capped meteoric rises for both Parks and Wolinsky. Parks, 53, has been with the paper since 1980, serving in various foreign assignments, including China, Russia, Israel and South Africa, where his coverage earned him a 1987 Pulitzer Prize. In just two and a half years, Parks has catapulted from foreign correspondent to the paper's top editorial position. His first management job was deputy foreign editor, a position he held for a year before becoming managing editor in May 1996.

    Wolinsky, who started at the paper as a reporter 20 years ago, was called into Coffey's office at 6 p.m. the night before the announcement and told of his big new job.

    ``It bowled me over,'' he told AJR. ``I was only half listening to what Shelby was saying. I think I had drool coming out of my mouth.''

    Wolinsky had been sharing California coverage duties with Associate Editor Carol Stogsdill. ``I reported to her,'' he says. ``I ended up with it entirely.'' Stogsdill immediately went on vacation.

    Wolinsky described Willes' commitment to blowing up the long-sacrosanct wall between the newsroom and the business side. ``Willes thinks the wall is not important,'' says Wolinsky, ``and actually prevents us [the news and business sides] from talking to each other. He believes the wall hurts the business and is the reason for the paper's stagnation.''

    So is Wolinsky completely comfortable with Willes' idea to mingle business types with editors? ``I'm comfortable,'' he says, ``as long as I don't have to report to them [business managers].''

    After Willes' bombshell, Wolinsky was peppered with questions from anxious Metro staffers about the paper's future. He promised them the editorial side ``will still decide solely what stories go in the paper.''

    But his reassurances did little to quell widespread staff concern. Said one editor, summing up the prevailing newsroom mood: ``It's all very scary.''



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