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From AJR,   December 1999  issue

A Costly Rookie Mistake   

The L.A. Times pays the price for its publisher's lack of newspaper experience.


By Rem Rieder
Rem Rieder (rrieder@ajr.umd.edu) is AJR's editor and senior vice president.      


FROM THE OUTSIDE, it must look easy.
Putting out a newspaper: How tough can it be? It's not like understanding nuclear physics, or the NBA salary cap, or why people pay money to listen to Wayne Newton.
Mark Willes clearly didn't think newspaper experience was an important credential for a newspaper publisher. After all, he named himself to the job at the Los Angeles Times, one of the nation's leading papers, not long after he became the main man at parent Times Mirror. Never mind that he was a businessman whose newspaper experience was that he had read them.
And when he handed off the publisher gig, he picked a successor who, until she had been named Times president a year before, was also a newspaper neophyte.
In late October, the L.A. Times reaped the whirlwind.
It turned out that Times Publisher Kathryn M. Downing had made a deal that was, shall we say, unusual for a major newspaper.
The paper put out a massive special issue of its Sunday magazine that focused exclusively on the Staples Center, La-La Land's new downtown sports arena. Nothing revolutionary about that. But here's the wrinkle: The Times would split the ad revenue with the subject of the issue.
Oh, and by the way, Downing had neglected to tell the paper's editor, Michael Parks, or anybody else on the editorial side about the arrangement.
Not surprisingly, the Times staff was furious when the joint advertising agreement came to light. It had thrown the newspaper's credibility into question, big time.
To her credit, once the controversy erupted, Downing entered a guilty plea. She apologized for the "horrific cloud" she had placed over the Times' reputation. And she promised to make sure that there would be no similar embarrassments in the future.
When asked by one of her staffers if maybe she shouldn't consider going to journalism school, Downing conceded that getting more familiar with the editorial process might be a good idea.
Ya think?
Her boss--apparently no longer regarding as quite so quaint the idea that knowing a little something about newspapers might be good for people who run them--put his finger on what had gone wrong.
"This is exactly a consequence," he said, "of having people in the publisher's job who don't have experience in newspapers. If you don't have people with experience, you'll have people who don't understand the issues until they're made to understand the issues."
The answer, he added, was more communication between business and editorial.
That's fine. But it begs the question: Why put someone in charge of a newspaper who has to be trained on the job, not in the nuances and the subtleties and the quirks but in the fundamental ethos of the craft? It's simply asking for trouble, trouble the proud L.A. Times got.
In fact, there is a sense of inevitability about the Staples Center affair.
Since he moved from General Mills to Times Mirror in 1995, Willes has made no secret of his desire to "blow up the wall" between business and editorial. He was greeted, of course, with that mixture of righteous indignation and ridicule at which we journalists excel.
Willes took quite a pounding. But, he would later say, the problem wasn't what he wanted to do; he just hadn't explained it very well. He wasn't talking about giving advertisers or ad salesmen control over content. He had nothing nefarious in mind. He simply was looking for a cooperative effort to find innovative ways to make money in today's fiercely competitive and rapidly changing media climate.
Nothing wrong with that. You adapt or you die. But when you talk about blowing up walls, you had better be careful about just what you mean. If you don't, you can easily send the wrong signal, particularly to someone who isn't steeped in the traditions of the profession.
Was the recent incident an aberration? We'll find out in AJR's January/February issue, which will include William Prochnau's detailed examination of Times Mirror four-and-a-half years into the Mark Willes era. It will mark the final installment of the distinguished State of the American Newspaper series that has graced this magazine's pages since May 1998.
As for the future, let's hope Downing has learned her lesson. That wall is there for a reason.