By: M.L. Stein
David Shaw fearlessly analyzes his own bosses
and tells the world about Mark Willes’ ‘revolution’ at the L.A. Times
David Shaw is unlikely ever to win a popularity rating among his colleagues at the Los Angeles Times ? or even come close.
The paper’s media critic for 23 years, the Pulitzer Prize-winning Shaw, frequently has included Times reporting and editing when he has dissected the transgressions of American journalism. A former Times editor on a panel reacted heatedly when another panelist began, “Your own media critic said. . . .” “He’s not MY media critic,” the editor exploded. Shaw himself recalls days when some news staffers cut him dead when meeting in the Times hallway.
Love To Hate Him
But Shaw’s latest series, a three-part examination of the growing alliance between the news and advertising sides of newspapers across the country, should improve his image among rank-and-file staffers at the Times. The subject has been covered by other media, but in the first investigation by an insider, Shaw digs deeply into the changes wrought by publisher Mark Willes in sweetening the relationship between the business and editorial departments.
Willes, Shaw points out, has demanded profit-and-loss statements from each department and has appointed “general managers” from the business side to serve as “partners” with section editors. At one point, he quotes Willes as threatening to “use a bazooka, if necessary, to blow up the wall” separating the departments. Willes has fomented nothing short of a “revolution” at the Times, Shaw declares.
Journalists across the country worry that the Times’ editorial integrity will be eroded by Willes’ “unprecedented assault on ‘The Wall,'” Shaw reported, adding that skeptics “aren’t convinced that Willes ultimately can avoid an erosion of editorial independence, no matter how well-intentioned he may be.” Willes has vowed to maintain the paper’s editorial integrity and reputation as a world-class newspaper.
Conceding it’s too early to completely assess Willes’ program, begun in the fall of 1997, Shaw noted that while the Times’ operating profits increased 31% last year, its editorial expenses for 1998 went up less than 3%, and section editors were asked last October to cut their 1998 budgets by 1% from 1997. But Shaw quotes editor Michael Parks as saying that new budgets are being drafted to give some sections more money and others less.
Recalling Willes’ previous jobs with the Federal Reserve System and General Mills, Shaw observes: “Many in the newspaper industry question whether Willes can really devise new strategies that have eluded people who have spent their lives running big newspaper companies. More important, reporters and editors at the Times and elsewhere wonder if, in his gut, he realizes that newspapers are a public trust, not just another moneymaking enterprise.”
And while acknowledging Parks’ standing as an experienced and admired newsman, Shaw notes that Parks spent 31 of his 36 years in journalism as a reporter, including 25 years as a foreign correspondent “thousands of miles from the rapidly changing economic conditions and internecine struggles that buffeted company headquarters.” Parks, also a Pulitzer Prize recipient, succeeded Shelby Coffey III, who resigned as editor shortly after Willes, the CEO and chairman of Times Mirror Co., named himself publisher.
The executives’ views on the new regime are sprinkled throughout Shaw’s lengthy piece. Willes states: “It would be a travesty and tragedy and a personal embarrassment to me if we ever did anything that harmed or diminished the paper in terms of reputation or quality.”
Parks, who read Shaw’s copy for the series, denies new policies will pollute the paper’s editorial purity with self-interest, saying, “If an editor at the Los Angeles Times does not know right from wrong and doesn’t have the courage to do the right thing, then he or she is in the wrong job and at the wrong paper.”
Shaw offers no examples of the paper compromising itself in connection with Willes’ directives but suggests that fear will permeate the staff. Doyle McManus, the Times’ Washington bureau chief, says, “It makes very good sense for journalists to look at what market research can tell us. But it doesn’t make sense for journalists to ask or to allow market research to tell us what should be on the front page.”
To Willes’ credit, Shaw states, the paper is more than halfway to his goal of boosting circulation by 50,000 this year ? toward an eventual 500,000 gain. Moreover, under Willes, full-time editorial staff increased slightly in 1997 and the news hole expanded by 6.2%, he writes.
Shaw discloses that the editorial budget and staff are scheduled to rise, “albeit modestly,” this year, when the editorial budget hits $109 million ? a “distant second” to the New York Times’ $155 million.
The true test of whether the “revolution” pays off is yet to come, Shaw posits, since Willes expects to have most of his initiatives in place by year’s end, and answers should emerge soon after. Meanwhile, Willes, dubbed the “cereal killer” by news personnel, has cut 700 jobs, 150 of them in editorial, at the Times and eliminated 2,300 other positions at Times Mirror’s Baltimore Sun, Hartford Courant and Newsday, the Long Island-based paper whose New York City edition he closed. Willes said the steps were necessary to “stop the hemorrhaging.”
Shaw’s series also examined the New York Times, whose news offices have resisted any intrusion with “almost missionary zeal.” Yet a panel of editors and business executives, known as the “Mohonk group,” have met regularly for the last three years there to consider interdepartmental issues. The group’s accomplishments, the writer adds, have included the introduction of several sections and more color. In fact, the gathering was so successful that it was expanded to “Mohonk 2” this year and reports to a management team that includes publisher Arthur Ochs Sulzberger Jr., executive editor Joseph Lelyveld and the paper’s president, managing editor and editorial page editor.
Sulzberger said the move is needed, not to “move the wall” between editorial and advertising but to “clearly define it” in a manner that will allow the Times to avoid the problems of the automobile industry, where engineers and designers “would never talk to each other.”
In search of profits, the Los Angeles Times, like many other newspapers, has increased its special sections, mainly designed to attract advertisers, Shaw reports. The sections are controlled by the news department, which insists they are not advertorials and are not labeled as advertising.
From Dallas, where he was attending the Newspaper Association of America’s annual publishers convention, Willes said Shaw’s series “was very well done ? balanced and complete.”
Shaw said his work also drew praise from former publisher Otis Chandler. The only complaint he heard, he related, came from the Sacramento bureau, which is described in the series as providing “weak coverage” of the capital city. Shaw explained that the remark was not intended to disparage the staffers there but only that the bureau, in his view, was understaffed.
?(David Shaw, the Los Angeles Times’ Pulitzer Prize-winning media critic, had the guts and freedom to evaluate his own paper’s news and marketing policies in a series.) [Caption]
?(E&P Web Site: http://www.mediainfo.com) [Caption]
?(copyright: Editor & Publisher May 16, 1998) [Caption]