Who really broke the L.A. Times-Staples Center story?

In this corner, a scrappy alternative; in the other, a SoCal business journal.

By Sean Elder

Published November 11, 1999 12:27PM (EST)

In a recent piece on the Los Angeles Times-Staples Center fiasco, I initially wrote that the New Times Los Angeles had broken the story about the unconventional -- oh, hell, unethical -- joint magazine and profit-sharing venture between the paper and the new multi-sports arena. Not so, an L.A. reporter informed me immediately after publication. The Los Angeles Business Journal had bested the alternative New Times by a week. He quoted the piece in question (by the Journal's Dan Turner) and I changed my piece to credit the business mag.

Then came a vituperative e-mail from someone at the New Times saying, in essence, "Nuh-uh." After going back to the articles in question and speaking to Turner, I think the two disparate publications can split the difference. In his initial report (published a day after the special Sunday section that caused all the uproar and a week before the New Times piece), Turner revealed the joint-venture nature of the publication:

Tim Leiweke, president of the Kings [hockey team] and Staples Center, referred to the magazine as a joint venture between the arena and the Times, though Times spokesman Mike Lang dislikes that characterization. "There was no involvement by Staples in this editorially," Lang said. It's a sensitive subject because the Times has been criticized for initiatives from Times Mirror Co. CEO Mark Willes that have blurred the lines between the paper's advertising and editorial departments. The arena's involvement was to contact the teams, concessionaires and various corporate sponsors and ask them to buy ads in the Sunday magazine; the ads themselves were sold by the Times' advertising department.

The New Times piece, written and reported by editor Rick Barrs in his column "The Finger," was the first to mention the more heinous profit-sharing scheme: "Though The Finger can hardly believe what it's hearing, sources say the Times has agreed to split profits from the Staples Center issue with, uh, the Staples Center. And sources say the paper has promised to produce five 'promotional efforts' over five years for the center." This was unquestionably the item that brought the national media attention, the outrage of former publisher Otis Chandler and scorn upon the heads of current publisher Kathryn Downing and Times-Mirror CEO Willes.

This is a story with legs: Slate's Chatterbox has explored its origins as well, and now a chorus of journalism mullahs have condemned the whole enterprise as a kickback and worse. Will the Times' own internal investigation yield any more dirt? Hungry media mavens can only hope so.

Sean Elder

Sean Elder is a frequent contributor to Salon.

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