by Allan R. Andrews
the time editors at the Columbia Journalism
Review were selecting his newspaper as the fourth best in the nation and
editors at Editor & Publisher were choosing him as one of the 25 most
influential news people of the 20th century, retired publisher of the Los
Angeles Times Otis Chandler was churning up a storm of protest in the
newsroom of his old paper.
It may look like a local story concerning a big newspaper and a big new civic arena, but it's really an inside look at what is wrong with newspaper journalism as it is increasingly practiced in America today.
The flap at the Times that triggered Chandler's harsh words of criticism of top managers involves a special 164-page edition of the Los Angeles Times Sunday Magazine, produced by the magazines own editors and reporters and effusively praising the new Staples Center sports arena in Los Angeles. Basically, the newspaper agreed to share revenue from the sales of ads in the magazine, which comes with the Sunday paper, with the Staples complex, a figure estimated to be about $2 million.
As one critic put it, no matter how innocent or stupid the agreement was, it has the ring of payola and threatens the credibility, seriousness and purpose of not only the Times but of every journalistic enterprise in the nation. The Baltimore Sun's David Zurawik captured the situation at the Los Angeles Times in the lead of his Nov. 10 story: "A newsroom in revolt, a scathing denunciation of senior management from a legendary former publisher, wall-to-wall condemnation from the journalistic community, and readers questioning the integrity and credibility of the newspaper itself..."
Chandler's five-page letter, read aloud from atop a desk to the most of the Times' newsroom by city editor Bill Boyarsky, called the Staples deal "the most serious single threat to the future survival and growth of this great newspaper during my more than 50 years of being associated with the Times." The gravity of the incident, I think, goes even deeper. In this case, the Times is the largest showcase of a newspaper involved in the great experiment of breaking down the wall between editorial and business departments.
Pulling no punches, Chandler said, "One cannot successfully run a great newspaper like the Los Angeles Times with executives in the top two positions, both of whom have no newspaper experience at any level." Then Chandler made one of the most under-reported statements in his letter. He said, "Successfully running a newspaper is not like any other business." This is so fundamental it should be emblazoned over the entryway of every major metropolitan daily in the country.
Los Angeles Times' publisher, Kathryn M. Downing, a former book
publishing executive, took the hit and apologized, blaming her
inexperience with newspapers for doing something stupid and making an
innocent mistake. What she didn't say is that she served as a front
person for the programmatic invasion of the newsroom by the business
office that has been ongoing at the Times since Chandler left and Mark
Willes was installed as top manager.
Downing's mea culpa sounded pretty good until Chandler blasted her along with other top managers. Then, in a strange turnabout, Downing tried to take the focus off her and put it on Chandler's anger. "Otis Chandler is angry and bitter and he is doing a great disservice to this paper. And that's too bad because when he was publisher, he did wonderful things," she said of her predecessor, totally ignoring the issue that her actions seem to have weakened the respectability, credibility and responsibility that Chandler built in two decades at the helm. Downing doesn't seem to understand where Chandler's anger and bitterness originates Her published statements indicate she clearly doesn't understand the nature of news.
Rather than a disservice, Chandler has fired a shot across the bow of the marketing vessel that is plowing through the sea of journalism, a shot that every reporter and editor who grasps the nature of news wishes he or she could have fired.
Every time the Kathryn Downings and Mark Willeses of the newspaper world point to the profits they have rung up for stockholders or to the revenue and circulation increases made on their watch, they are underscoring how little they understand what Chandler is calling significant. A former colleague of mine, when the newspaper for which we worked was going through similar budgetary battles and turmoil, said flatly of the newsroom operation, "Editorial does not make money; editorial spends money."
In an e-mail memo dispatched in the aftermath of Downing's dilettantish drone of humility followed by her ignorant explanation of Chandler's response, Willes urged editorial and business staff personnel at the Times to continue working together. "If we are to succeed in today's fiercely competitive environment," Willes wrote, "we must have a constant flow of creative ideas. "If we are so concerned about the risk of embarrassment that we don't innovate, we will die." What compels attention in Willes' memo is not what he said but what he leaves unaddressed. What is the nature of this cooperation and how does it affect the news? What does Willes mean by success for a newspaper? Does innovation overrule ethics?
Few in editorial would deny that the paper must make revenue; that is the job of the business side. What has happened in Willes' vision, it appears, is that revenue replaced news as the driving force of the institution. Television, somewhere about the time "60 Minutes" and "The Evening News with Walter Cronkite" were drawing large audiences, came up with the notion that news was a money-maker, a product that could be packaged and sold like breakfast cereal.
No less than Walter Cronkite has spoken out strongly against this "infotainment" mentality. The ideology that Willes brings to newspapers is much the same. It argues that news exists -- or is manufactured like any other product -- to increase revenue.
Whether we know it or not, we are in a war, and our only weapons are words and ideas, which is what Otis Chandler has fired at the revenue managers of his beloved Times.
November 15, 1999 (http://www.monitor.net/monitor) All Rights Reserved. Contact firstname.lastname@example.org for permission to use in any format.
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