Ethics Corner: Potential Issues in Sign of the ‘Times’

By: Allan Wolper

The Times Union in Albany, N.Y., is risking its reputation by buying the naming rights to an arena maintained and financed by the county the paper is charged with monitoring. The conflict will become an ethical nightmare if the county has to cut its social welfare programs to fulfill its debt service to a building that next January will be called the Times Union Center.

The newspaper, a Hearst stalwart whose recent investigation of secret money deals by the New York State Legislature was praised by The New York Times editorial page, is spinning the perception

that its deal with the county is just good corporate citizenship. The Times Union will pay $3.5 million to the county over about 10 years to place its name on the 17,500-seat facility in downtown Albany now known as the Pepsi Arena. The newspaper will use its pages to promote the venue, and its Web site will have a link to the arena’s ticket sellers, according to the agreement.

The Times Union won the name game after the Pepsi Bottling Group did not bid to renew its 10-year naming rights contract. In fact, no one did. The paper was selected after the county contacted area investors.

“The investment underscores our commitment to this community,” Times Union Publisher Mark E. Aldam said in a statement to his newspaper. “There will be no change in the way we cover news ? no blurring of that line.”

However, there are newsroom whispers that the line between business and editorial has already been breached. So I asked county officials about it.

“The reporters at the Times Union have told me they’re very uncomfortable with what has happened,” said Albany County Comptroller Michael F. Conners II. “But they can’t say anything or stray from the company line.”

Conners says the newspaper’s integrity will be tested if the arena’s revenues ? which were down last year due to a lackluster concert season ? do not cover the annual $3 million debt service and the increasing costs to maintain the 16-year-old building. “The county would then have to make up the difference,” he added.

The Times Union would then be reporting and perhaps editorializing on a fiscal problem created by an arena bearing its name ? affecting services like food stamps, welfare, mental health, and Medicaid, according to Conners.

Rex Smith, the Times Union’s vice president and editor, says he is willing to take that ethics gamble to improve his paper’s bottom line in an industry losing both readers and revenue. “We write about our advertisers all the time,” he said during a telephone interview. “We know that our readers are suspicious, as well they should be nowadays. But that doesn’t mean we won’t do the same kind of reporting we’ve done in the past.”

That will be a tough job. Covering county government is not the same as reporting on the latest car models, high-definition televisions, or credit card problems. If a person has his welfare cut, he might not be able to buy medicine or food. Still, the newsroom staffers to whom I spoke are hopeful Smith can navigate his ethical minefield with minimal damage to their paper’s credibility.

J. Robert Port, the paper’s senior editor/ investigations, said his reporters recently discovered that the state has been sending the arena more than $700,000 a year in promotion funds to lure NCAA sporting events to Albany. “I’ve been told to go ahead with the story and see how that money is spent on the Pepsi Arena,” he told me.

The question now is whether the Times Union will continue to be as aggressive next year once its name is on the building. “We weren’t the first ones to get into the game, and we won’t be the last,” said Paul Grondahl, a Times Union reporter. “Will the so-called ‘high wall’ between business and editorial hold firm? I hope it does.”

Grondahl wrote an article pointing out that the St. Petersburg (Fla.) Times, owned by the Poynter Institute, affixed its name in 2002 to the Ice Palace in Tampa. Since then, the Albuquerque (N.M.) Journal, the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, and the San Francisco Chronicle have placed their names on entertainment venues.

Carol DeMare, who covers county government, says she won’t brook any interference. “I have been a reporter for 30 years,” DeMare told me. “I won’t have any problems covering the arena.”

Harry Rosenfeld, the legendary editor-at-large of the Times Union who cut his ethical teeth as metro editor of The Washington Post during the Watergate era, will keep his eye on things. “We have to make certain we don’t pull punches,” said Rosenfeld. “Everyone has to make sure they don’t corrupt themselves.”

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