Willes, News Staff Debate Minority Coverage p.10

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By: M.L. Stein In a contentious meeting, the activist publisher faces questions
about his suggestions to set quotas to measure minority representation in news

Publisher Mark Willes and more than 200 Los Angeles Times staffers debated ? described as "contentious," "confrontational," "lively" and "vigorous" ? at a meeting over Willes' suggestions for race and sex quotas in news.
Willes and editor Michael Parks convened the session May 19 to quell newsroom buzz after Willes, in an interview in the Wall Street Journal, expressed his belief that the Times depends too heavily on white people, particularly men, as sources for news stories. The 56-year-old publisher said in the May 15 article that he would like to see more women and minority members quoted in the paper to better reflect the cultural diversity of its Los Angeles and Southern California circulation area. He reportedly said he intends to set specific goals for increasing the number of women and minorities quoted in stories, and editors' pay would depend partly on meeting them.
Moreover, Willes thought the paper should offer stories that are "more emotional, more personal, less analytical" to attract more women readers.
"When our readers read the paper, they don't see themselves in the paper," he told the Journal.
In an interview ? under the headline "Times Mirror Weighs a By-the-Numbers Approach to Expanding Coverage of Minorities" ? in the New York Times May 18, Willes referred to ways to "measure performance" on minority coverage, such as a recent exercise ? counting bylines, sources, pictures and quotes ? that confirmed his suspicion of under-reporting.
About proposals to link editors' pay to goals on covering minorities, he said, "If we can develop the right way to measure it, one of the good things is that we won't have to interfere with editorial independence at all. We won't have to say you have to have more stories on this or that. We'll say there are multiple ways" to do the job.
At the staff meeting, Willes did not back down, but said his statements were meant as suggestions to editors, not reporters.
City hall reporter Jim Newton responded that decisions by an editor affect reporters. He added if an editor called him at home to request that more minorities or women be inserted into a finished story, "I would tell him to go to hell."
Newton explained in an interview that he "fundamentally" agrees with Willes that more women and minorities should be represented in the news pages but thinks Willes is going about it wrong.
"There are a lot of hurt feelings in the newsroom," he went on. "Some people are very disturbed. There were a lot of questions." Newton, who characterized the meeting as "contentious," credited Willes with setting forth his views well but said, "we have a difference of opinion. I think he is testing the limits of his authority."
Willes stirred up the paper last year by tightening the relationship between the business and editorial sides of the paper and naming business executives to work with editors in developing content designed to attract more readers and advertisers.
Metro columnist Shawn Hubler said she agrees with Willes' approach to getting more female and minority voices in the paper, contending, "All newspapers should resonate with all readers: females, males, families and minorities. I tend to look at the spirit in which he offers his ideas, rather than take them literally. He may not use the right words in dealing with newspeople ? he doesn't have a news background and uses laymen's language ? but I see no harm in what he's trying to accomplish. His heart is in the right place."
Hubler said some of her female colleagues are "bent out of shape" by Willes' call for more stories with emotional impact to appeal to women readers. "My own viewpoint," she continued, "is that I'll read stories like that but I also am interested in financial news and national and international affairs. What he wants is more ballast in the paper to address all kinds of readers. The guy is not a sexist. He has promoted more women around here than the last four publishers. And I have known editors whose idea of diversifying the paper was to put a sports or Dow story on Page One."
A similar attitude was expressed by city editor Bill Boyarsky, who described progress as "slow" in making the Times more representative of its communities. Willes "is trying to shake things up and that's good," Boyarsky said. "He's a guy with vision. I believe we should not be distracted by side issues, such as what kind of content women like. The core issue is that the newspaper has to improve its image in the community. Mark Willes is setting a positive tone for the Times."
David Shaw, Times media critic, recalled the meeting as "confrontational," though not raucous. Still, he said, it was "atypical of the Times, which always has prided itself on its civility. But I kind of like to see reporters speak out and Willes spoke back. Sure, he's intruding himself more into the newsroom, but he wants us to reflect the people we live with and who read us."
Shaw called Willes' word choice in the Journal interview "terrible." "He left the impression that there will be a quota system in how we cover women and minorities. He certainly did not disabuse anyone of that notion." Shaw further suggested that the publisher's remarks on inserting more stories with emotional impact to draw more women readers also may have been misinterpreted because of his wording. The critic theorized that Willes was making a reasonable assumption that topics like child endangerment most likely resonate more among women.
Willes was out of town and could not be reached, nor could Parks. But a spokeswoman said Willes was "challenging the newspaper to get better."
"We are the most diverse community in the nation and he wants the Times to reflect that community," she stated. "There was a vigorous discussion, but he was not telling the staff how to practice journalism ? just to look for ways to do things differently."
Willes has appointed Mary Junck, president of Times Mirror's Eastern newspapers, to form a committee with editors throughout the company to examine the papers' commitment to diversity and make recommendations.
Times Mirror also owns the Baltimore Sun, Newsday, Hartford Courant, Allentown, Pa., Morning Call, among others.
?(Mark Willes) [Photo]
?(David Shaw) [Photo]
?(Editor & Publisher Web Site: http://www. mediainfo.com) [caption]
?(copyright: Editor & Publisher june 6, 1998) [Caption]

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