From AJR,   December 1997

Will Willes Work Wonders?   

His bold restructuring plan has pitfalls, but it has big upside potential as well.

By John Morton
John Morton (mortoninc@msn.com), a former newspaper reporter, is president of a consulting firm that analyzes newspapers and other media properties.     

A sometimes uncomfortable truth about the newspaper business is that newspapers must sell newspapers. That fact lies behind everything a newspaper does, no matter how nobly its efforts are couched in ringing phrases about fomenting public discourse, rooting out corruption and incompetence among public officials, and generally serving the commonweal.

Even the most fearless, news-committed editor knows, deep in his soul, that his newspaper can only be as good as it can afford to be.

These thoughts about the nature of the newspaper business are occasioned by the recent reorganization of the Los Angeles Times imposed by its new publisher, formerly an executive at a food manufacturer. What Mark H. Willes, who is also chief executive of the paper's parent, Times Mirror, has done is to breach the wall between news and other departments, notably the advertising department, that has been in place for most of this century (see "Blowing up the Wall," page 18).

His intent is to treat the individual editorial sections – news, business, sports, etc. – as stand-alone businesses, with their own product and marketing strategies and staffs. There will be close collaboration between editors and marketing executives to devise editorial products that can attract both readers and advertising support. Willes' ultimate goal is to boost the Times' circulation from just over 1 million to 1.5 million, which, if accomplished, would be a startling achievement.

Predictably, this reorganization at one of the nation's most influential newspapers has fostered alarm among many journalists, who generally revere the idea of an unbreachable barrier protecting the independent judgment of the news department. Such fortifications originally were erected to provide at least the appearance of news independence, to delineate to readers what is and is not for sale in the newspaper.

An example of how the wall is supposed to work occurred long ago at the Wall Street Journal, when high-level General Motors executives threatened to cancel the company's considerable advertising program if the paper did not tone down its negative coverage. A Journal advertising executive promptly pulled the GM ad contract from his desk drawer and tore it up in front of the automaker executives' eyes.

In fact, at lesser papers the wall has not always prevented newspapers from pandering to advertising interests in news columns. But blatant examples of this practice are far less common now than in the past, and the wall and a heightened sense of the value of news independence are among the reasons.

In some respects, Willes' reorganization of the Times is really not much different from what a lot of newspapers have been doing on an informal basis for years. Editors have taken part in strategy meetings attended by all department heads focused on how to make the editorial product more appealing to readers and more attractive to advertisers.

What is different at the Times is that this collaboration will not be occasional but day to day, which inevitably raises the spectre of advertising concerns unduly influencing news judgment. In interviews Willes has taken umbrage at the notion that his editors might not be strong and independent-minded enough to withstand pressure from marketing executives.

The test will come, of course, when some enterprising reporter develops a hard-hitting story that reflects unfavorably on, say, local automobile dealers or some other big advertisers. A more subtle danger will be the tests that never come because of an unconscious reluctance by journalists to be aggressive in an atmosphere perceived to be dominated by marketing concerns.

Probably the uproar over the Times' reorganization would have been quieter if it had not been imposed by a publisher with no background in journalism. Newspapering has always been a clubby business, one might even say a narcissistic one.

Then along comes a publisher with lots of experience marketing branded products like cereals and baby food. He analyzes how newspapers operate. And he analyzes the results – weakening circulation and increasing difficulty in hanging on to newspapers' share of advertising spending. He concludes there must be a better way, and he applies his marketing savvy to reorganize the way the Los Angeles Times sells its product.

What he has done could turn out to be the dumbest thing ever tried with a newspaper, with serious consequences on staff morale and journalistic reputation. Or it could point the way to the future for an industry that clearly has had trouble doing what it must – sell newspapers.