The L.A. Times Blasts … the L.A. Times!

Chatterbox started reading the Los Angeles Times14-page investigation of itself  well before noon. (If you don’t know what Chatterbox is talking about, click here  and here and here.)  He didn’t finish until after the sun had set. Even granting that Chatterbox had one or two other minor tasks to complete today, it does seem that seven hours is more time than any reasonable person should have to spend reading about the genesis of a single-topic edition of a Sunday magazine. Someone less familiar with the L.A. Times’ tradition of running stories at approximately five times their logical length might suspect that publication of David Shaw’s opus, “Crossing the Line,” was a deliberate scheme to hide news of its publisher’s and editor’s misbehavior by burying it inside a self-important and interminable narrative that almost no one would have the patience to read. The thing came in 11 “chapters,” and there was so much throat-clearing that the sixth was actually called, “The Prelude.” But in fact, the length was the L.A. Times’ own daft way of saying that it views the recent corruption of its editorial standards as a serious matter.

Shaw wins bravery points for all but calling his newspaper’s publisher, Kathryn Downing, and its editor, Michael Parks, a pair of liars who ought to be sacked forthwith. Downing never told Parks until very late in the game that the L.A. TimesMagazine’s special issue celebrating the opening of the Staples Center was going to share ad revenues with the new downtown sports arena. She kept this secret, she says, because she didn’t want to corrupt editorial processes. But it’s much likelier, Shaw writes, that she “didn’t think it was a big deal” (the actual quote is from Dick Stanton, senior vice president and chief operating officer for the paper). When the news staff heard about the revenue-sharing deal and revolted, Downing gave assurances that the Staples Center hadn’t helped sell ads. In fact, Shaw shows, they had. (“That’s us, that was us, that was us, that was us,” says Tim Lieweke, president of the Staples Center, paging through the issue with Shaw and pointing out ads he and his staff helped to get.) Downing also told the angry news staff that she was canceling the ad-revenue-sharing agreement with the Staples Center and sending it a check instead. But the check still hasn’t been sent, Shaw reports. (Perhaps it was sent today after Downing read his story.)

Parks, the L.A. Timeseditor, insists that at various planning meetings, when the revenue-sharing arrangement was discussed or mentioned in memos that were handed out, he was somehow not paying attention, or out of the room talking to John McCain, or something. He says that when he did find out about it in September, he was outraged, but Shaw’s reporting shows his reaction to have been weirdly muted. He didn’t have the special issue canceled, even though at that point most of the magazine hadn’t yet been printed; he didn’t even consider running a disclosure statement about the deal, which would have been laughably easy to do. Parks tells Shaw that he told Felicity Barringer of the New York Times, who broke the story of the Staples deal in the national press, that it was “an inappropriate arrangement, and we should not have done it,” but Barringer, who is a scrupulously fair reporter, tells Shaw he never told her anything like that.

Shaw also deserves kudos for documenting his newspaper’s decline under Times Mirror chief Mark Willes (who, interestingly, was still publisher when the Staples contract was signed). The horror stories include a representative of an ad-sales firm impersonating an L.A. Times reporter; the ad department telling advertisers of a “‘Millennium Home contest,’ the winner of which would be ‘profiled in a follow-up feature article’ ” that the editors neither knew of nor would approve; and various L.A. Times news staffers being corralled into planning profit-making L.A. Times conferences of various kinds featuring people they wrote about. Although the paper’s slide into ethically questionable business practices predates Willes’ arrival, Shaw makes clear that Willes has accelerated it.

Chatterbox must fault Shaw, though, for offering only the sketchiest answer to a question Chatterbox raised  when the story first broke: namely, what business justification was there for the L.A. Times to enter into its founding-partnership deal with the Staples Center? As Chatterbox pointed out then, the dollar value of the newspaper concession and the ad placements and the skybox inside the arena, which appear to be all the L.A. Times gets out of the partnership, is well under $1 million annually. Yet the L.A. Times ended up paying $1.6 million annually for the privilege. This is better than the $2 million or $3 million that was previous reported, but it’s still a bad financial deal. Shaw reports that the Staples Center was demanding $2 million to $3 million from its other founding partners, and that the L.A. Times suits felt very clever for having bid Staples down. Of its annual $1.6 million payment, the L.A. Times pays $800,000 in cash; $500,000 in free advertising; and about $300,000 in profits from joint ventures. This last, which has come to symbolize in most people’s minds the corruption of editorial standards implicit in the deal, was viewed at the time (in the words of the person who negotiated the deal) as “a way for us to be able to make this deal during a time when cash was a problem.” Perhaps coincidentally, when the L.A. Times set about calculating how much it had netted off the Staples Center issue, it found that after making extremely complex estimates regarding the use of staffers’ time, the Staples Center’s agreed-upon 50 percent share was … $300,000. But if the L.A. Times was swindling the Staples Center, it was only in the context of a larger deal in which the Staples Center had conned the L.A. Times.

Perhaps that story should be assigned to a writer in the L.A. Times’ business section. It could probably be explained quite exhaustively in a few hundred words.