Chatterbox has experienced much frustration trying to figure out precisely what’s gone amiss at the Los Angeles Times. First it was reported (by Rick Barrs in New Times L.A.) that the Times was sharing advertising revenue from a special issue of its Sunday magazine with the subject of that special issue, the new Staples Center sports arena. This created a predictable (and justified) uproar at the paper, which caused the publisher, Kathryn Downing, to apologize and mumble some nonsense about how she was unfamiliar with newspaper etiquette, which encouraged reporters and editors at the paper to push editor Michael Parks to assign a story about the whole fiasco, which he eventually did (to David Shaw, the paper’s Pulitzer-winning media critic). It also prompted Chatterbox to puzzle over the apparent financial insanity of a deal in which the L.A. Times paid the Staples Center 2 or 3 million dollars in exchange for what seemed at best $800,000 worth of services.
When Chatterbox wrote the earlier item, he was unaware that even before the New Times L.A. scoop, Dan Turner of the Los Angeles Business Journal had broken another piece of the Staples Center story–namely, that the sports arena had contacted “the teams, concessionaires and various corporate sponsors” connected to the Staples Center and asked them “to buy ads in the Sunday magazine; the ads themselves were sold by the Times’s advertising department.” (This story is not available online.) Now that Chatterbox is better informed, he still suspects the deal was a ripoff for the L.A. Times. Surely an aggressive sales staff for a virtual-monopoly newspaper like the Times could shake down these advertisers just as effectively. But Chatterbox must admit that he doesn’t know what other goodies the Times may have extracted from the Staples Center.
Chatterbox also doesn’t know how common it is for newspapers to enlist the people they write about to sell ads. The New York Times, after initially covering the L.A. Times story quite aggressively, subsequently had to admit that in 1995 the Boston Globe, which it owned then and continues to own, ran a special section on its new downtown sports arena, the Fleet Center, which relied on ads procured by … the Fleet Center. “We treated them as a sales agent and paid them a commission for ads that they sold,” Globe spokesman Richard Gulla told the Times’ Felicity Barringer. “Will it happen today? No.”
Chatterbox would love to see Downing lose her job (and–this is probably too much to hope for–see her boss, Times Mirror chief Mark Willes, get canned, too). Still, Chatterbox doesn’t really think a ritual sacrifice will address the basic underlying problem: When media outlets strike secret business deals with other businesses, readers are unable to evaluate whether these deals might be compromising news coverage.
This is not true of advertising, which–say what one will about its corrupting effect on news coverage–always, by definition, discloses potential conflicts to readers. It would be wonderful if publications could now be persuaded never to raise revenue by any means other than sales and advertising, but that’s probably impractical. (Newspaper circulation has, after all, been declining for many years.) A much better step would be for newspapers, magazines, Web sites, TV and radio news shows, etc., to disclose to consumers, on a regular basis, whatever non-advertising deals they have going. Newspapers, for example, could run a small daily box of agate type providing this information, with perhaps a longer summary provided once or twice a year.
Why reporters didn’t clamor for disclosure long ago, at the L.A. Times and elsewhere, is a bit of a mystery. Probably it reflected a yearning to remain blissfully ignorant of trends in the news business for as long as was humanly possible. (Most reporters Chatterbox knows are more interested in maintaining their virginity than in actually helping to maintain the integrity of the business organizations they belong to.) The L.A. Times staff’s cultlike attachment to Otis Chandler–the former publisher and descendant of the paper’s founding family, who last week wrote a letter supporting the staff revolt–seems typical of this ineffectuality. Times reporters have (according to a report in today’s Washington Post) lately been taping photocopied portraits of Chandler to newsroom walls, in silent protest against what’s being done to his legacy. Chandler was indeed a heroic publisher–the Times was a mediocre paper when he took it over, a great one when he stepped down–and it would be wonderful if he were reinstated or allowed a say about the paper’s fate. But by all accounts, he won’t be; despite owning more L.A. Times stock than anyone else, he’s outgunned on the board by an assortment of younger, much more crass and stock-price-obsessed Chandler cousins.
A more productive way for L.A. Times staff members to rebel would be if they demanded to learn–and share with readers–comprehensive information about the paper’s undisclosed sources of income and labor. By doing so, they would be endorsing Mark Willes’ view that the wall between the news and business sides of newspapers needs to be breached. But they would have the satisfaction of knowing they were breaching it in a way that Willes and his ilk would find unpleasant precisely to the extent that it exposed unpleasant practices.
Because Chatterbox thinks disclosure of non-advertising business revenue sources should be a news-industry norm, he will hereby do a little disclosing of his own. When Chatterbox mentions a book that is in print, he usually provides a link to it at barnesandnoble.com. This is because Barnes and Noble pays Slate a sliver of the proceeds whenever someone buys through a Slate link. Chatterbox, who has no ethical objections to this arrangement, is free to say whatever he wants about the book in question (frequently, he says the book is no good). He is under no pressure to mention particular books, or indeed to mention any books at all, and does so only when he thinks his readers might want to examine his source material. (Chatterbox does the same thing–bringing no financial benefit to Slate–with the other various source links he provides.) But readers of this column should be under no illusion that it’s in the business of finding the cheapest or otherwise best online vendors for particular books.
OK, L.A. Times, New York Times, NBC News, Salon, NPR, the Drudge Report, and the rest of you: Your turn.