L.A. Times, Part III: Mark Willes Speaks

Times-Mirror chief Mark “cereal killer” Willes this week wrote a lengthy memo to his staff essentially pleading for a cease-fire in the ongoing war between the Los Angeles Times’ editorial and business staffs. (To get up to speed on the controversy, click here and here to read Chatterbox’s previous items about it.) The key passage in Willes’ memo is headed “Complexities.” Here it is:

It is important to realize that as we go forward, there are no easy solutions to complex problems. Inferences from recent events must be drawn carefully so that decisions can be made that meet all critical and important requirements. For example, the Staples Center mistake has been ascribed to the fact that the Publisher and Times Mirror CEO both lack extensive years of newspaper experience. Yet the Boston Globe had the courage to report that it had an equally awkward arrangement with the Fleet Center when it opened in 1995. The publisher of that paper had newspaper experience. In fact his family had run the paper for over 100 years. The Globe is owned by the New York Times Company.

Chatterbox translation: This is where running a family-owned newspaper along classy principles gets you: Somebody comes along and buys you out. (L’affaire Fleet Center occurred after the Taylor family sold the Globe to the New York Times.)

Bad decisions can and are made by people with all kinds of backgrounds in the best kinds of organizations. The key is to have people make the best decisions they can. And when they make a bad call, to quickly acknowledge it, learn from it, and move forward.

Chatterbox translation: A “bad call” is one that people find out about. So from now on, keep your yaps shut!

Other newspaper organizations have business ties that raise important journalistic questions with which they successfully grapple every day. For example, the Chicago Tribune, the Dallas Morning News and the Arizona Republic must cover sports teams in which their companies have direct ownership positions. I mention these two examples simply to indicate that as we go forward we must meet our simultaneous responsibilities to our readers, customers, advertisers and communities. This requires sensitivity to all of the relevant issues in a brutally competitive and complex world. We are not alone in dealing with these issues.

Chatterbox translates: A word to the wise for other news organizations: Flay us for the Staples Center deal and we’ll flay you right back. Maybe Shaw should write a six-part series!

[Correction 11/12: An earlier version of this item ended on the triumphalist note that the L.A. Times should do penance by giving up tobacco advertising, as the Boston Globe just announced it will do. The L.A Times staff writer Michael Hiltzik, who finds most coverage of the L.A Times fiasco “ludicrously uninformed,” informs Chatterbox that the L.A. Times banned tobacco ads as of Oct. 1. Whoops.]