<em>Times</em>' internal issues distract from mission

The Los Angeles Times has certainly seen its share of drama over the past year and, as such, has become a frequent subject on media pages across the country.

The Los Angeles Times has certainly seen its share of drama over the past year and, as such, has become a frequent subject on media pages across the country.

In a way, the publication has become the poster child for the endless list of woes facing the newspaper industry: newsroom cuts, a battle for ownership, and internal management changes. The latest fiasco to hit the paper only exacerbates that situation.

Andres Martinez, the LA Times' editorial page editor, recently quit after publisher David Hiller scrapped a planned Sunday Current section guest-edited by film producer Brian Grazer. The paper apparently did so to eliminate any hint of impropriety on its part because Martinez is dating PR executive Kelly Mullens, whose colleague Allan Mayer suggested Grazer for the gig after Steven Spielberg was not available. Mayer's firm, 42 West, has since taken Grazer on as a client.

Did the LA Times overreact? Probably. Certainly the paper has had its share of controversy before. In 1999, it was revealed that the newspaper shared profits of a special magazine supplement with the Staples Center management, so it's understandable that it would not even want to give the smallest reason for other publications and the seemingly ubiquitous media blogs to question its choice of guest editor. But Martinez never made his relationship with Mullens a secret, and it certainly wouldn't be the first PR/journalist pairing - or even friendship - in history.

"I think the fact that the editorial page editor sought the advice of a PR person raised eyebrows in the news section," says Peter Himler, principal at Flatiron Communications. "I think those eyebrows were raised unnecessarily, and there was an overreaction. To say that PR should have no role in generating editorial product is naive."

Some might argue that this situation could have an effect on the Times' future interaction with PR professionals - and, indeed, that might be the case. Hiller has asked Times readers' representative Jamie Gold to investigate past editorial page decisions to see if there had been any improper influence. But the bigger issue is what the situation says about the Times and its future as a leading national newspaper.

Jerry Swerling, director of PR studies at USC's Annenberg School and a PR management consultant, believes the real issue is why the paper was considering a guest editor in the first place.

"You have to look at the concept itself of guest editor and what it suggests," he says. "What it feels like as a reader with high expectations to be reading day after day, seeing these ads touting this concept, [you have to ask yourself]: 'Is this good? Can you see The New York Times doing this? Can you see The Washington Post doing this?' And the answer is, 'I don't think so.' To me, it smacks of desperation."

Last week, the paper put an end to the guest editor program for the Sunday Current section, before it even got started (Grazer was to have been the first). In fact, beginning April 15, the Sunday Current section will be folded into the Book Review section.

But even though the latest saga may soon be coming to an end, it stands to reason that the internal strife it caused - it was the LA Times' own reporters that initially raised questions about the section - ultimately impacts the quality of the paper.

"Every ounce of energy that is distracted into dealing with this kind of nonsense is an ounce of energy not dedicated to great journalism," Swerling says. "People should be thinking about what are the most important stories and what's the mission of the newspaper... not gimmicks like guest opinion editors, not ownership issues, not internal witch hunts. They need to be thinking about putting out a great newspaper."

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