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CJRColumbia Journalism Review

March/April 2000 | Contents


How I Got That Story: Full Disclosure

by David Shaw
David Shaw won the Pulitzer Prize for criticism in 1991. CJR asked Shaw to tell how he reported the 37,000 word story that documented the Los Angeles Times's Staples Center debacle. This is his account. (His special report in the Times can be seen at www.latimes.com/news/reports/line/).

It was shortly after 8:30 in the evening, and my wife and our ten-year-old son and I had just finished dinner when the telephone rang. "David. Michael Parks," said the familiar voice on the other end of the line. "I want to hire you."

Hire me? I'd already been at the Los Angeles Times for thirty years, twenty-five of them as the paper's media critic, the last two reporting directly to Parks, the editor of the paper. What an odd choice of words, I thought. But I'd been waiting and hoping for this call and wasn't about to quibble about phrasing.

It had been twenty-four days since the Times had published a special issue of its Sunday magazine -- an issue whose profits the Times had previously agreed to split with the subject of that issue, the Staples Center. When most Times reporters and editors learned of this arrangement by reading about it in other newspapers the newsroom erupted in protest and rebellion. Kathryn Downing, the publisher, apologized -- in an angry, standing-room-only meeting with the news staff -- and I had walked directly from that meeting to my desk and sent Parks a computer message saying that I wanted to write a "definitive, authoritative" account of how and why the Staples Center blunder had occurred. He had rejected that request and subsequent entreaties from me and others, even as a petition was presented to him, signed by fifty-nine of the paper's most respected journalists, calling for publication in the Times of "a thorough examination of the events that led to the Staples deal," to be edited by someone who was not involved in it. But he soon changed his mind -- persuaded, he said, by the "quite intelligent, reasoned arguments of my colleagues" that a full investigation and full disclosure were required to "climb off this treacherous ground we were on."

"I've asked George Cotliar to edit it," he said when he called me at home with the assignment. "How do you feel about that?"

Cotliar had worked at the Times for forty years, eighteen as managing editor, before retiring two years earlier. He was a man of courage and integrity and an excellent judge of both news and people. I liked and respected him and said that was fine with me, although I did have one concern: "When he was managing editor, he was often very critical of my media stories. He was too defensive of the paper."

"Yes, I know that," Parks said, with what seemed to be a bemused chuckle.

Parks and I agreed to meet in his office at eight o'clock the next morning to discuss the story, and one of the first things he said to me then was, "I think we should do this as quickly as possible. Do you think you can have it done in this calendar month?"

"No. But I'd like to have it done in this calendar year. Psychologically, I agree it's important to get this done by then."

He nodded. "I hope you'll try to explain why this issue should matter to readers and I hope you'll provide some sense of what prevailing industry practices and standards are, but apart from that, I want to give you as little direction as possible. Cotliar will be your editor."

Now it was my turn to nod. "I assume you won't read it before it's published?"

"When Cotliar signs off on it, that's how it will go in the paper."

"I assume Kathryn and Mark [Willes, Times Mirror chairman and c.e.o.] won't read it either, right?"

"Right."

We shook hands, and I walked out.

Cotliar and I met for lunch the next day, and over shrimp in black bean sauce and kung pao chicken, I reminded him of his angry reaction to many of my stories that were critical of the Times. To my surprise, he said he didn't remember criticizing anything I'd written, "except, sometimes, to say they were too long or had too many parts."

"Hell," I said, "a lot of people say that. But you once wadded up a copy of my story and threw it in the trash and told me that if I thought we were so bad and The New York Times was so good, I should go work for them."

"Look, David," he said, "I was -- I am -- loyal to the Times. But my loyalty is not to the institution itself so much as it is to the people who work there, and I've been in touch with enough of them to know how badly they've been hurt by this Staples thing. You don't have to worry about my being protective of the paper -- or of Parks."

I repeated to Cotliar what I'd said to Parks about finishing by year's end. But I knew in my own mind that the story should be published even sooner -- by December 23 at the latest -- so it wouldn't get lost in the Christmas/New Year's/Millennium crush. That didn't leave much time for what would clearly be a complex story.

Speed, it seems to me, is often the enemy of accuracy and responsibility, and some colleagues criticize me as much for the amount of time I take on a story as for the amount of space I take. But I'm obsessively -- perhaps excessively -- thorough and careful, the result of having a father who hammered into me, on a daily basis, in every context, his life's mantra: "check, double-check, and triple-check." Even on the Staples story, I was more interested in being definitive than in being first, and more concerned with what others might write about Staples after my story than with what they might write before my story.

Over the next six weeks, I interviewed 132 people, including Parks six times and Downing four times in person and once each on the phone, and several other principals four, five, six times -- to clarify a specific point, at the last minute. I interviewed Mark Willes twice. Many times, I literally ran from interview to interview, working nineteen or twenty hours a day, seven days a week -- including Thanksgiving Day weekend, when I joined my family for our traditional celebration in the Berkshires, in southwestern Massachusetts, but only after working on the entire cross-country flight, working to within an hour of turkey time and then working all day, until 5:30 a.m. the day after Thanksgiving, napping for two hours and then going back to work. (Turkey notwithstanding, I lost eleven pounds while doing the story.)

I used essentially the same reporting and organizational methods I've used on big projects for years. In order to get a good grasp on the general parameters of the story, as well as a few key specifics, I did my first interviews with some of the people closest to what I thought of as "ground zero" -- a couple of editors on the Sunday magazine, the sports editor (whose staff wrote most of the stories), a couple of the leaders of the newsroom protest, two former Times employees, and the senior vice president in charge of advertising. I chose the latter primarily because I'd heard that many in the ad department were upset by both the newsroom reaction (they regarded it as "a lynch mob") and by the prospect of my story ("a witchhunt," several said). I wanted to assure him that I didn't automatically regard the news side as saints and "his" people as villains, that I wanted only to find out just how everything had evolved, regardless of who might look bad -- and that the best way for him to ensure an accurate story would be to cooperate and to urge his staff to do so as well. Like most reporters on projects of this nature, I didn't interview the top people -- Willes, Downing, and Parks -- until I was well into the story, although I interviewed Downing and Parks sooner than I might have under other circumstances, in part because I knew I would have to interview them several times, at great length, and didn't want to risk running out of time.

For each interview, I both took notes on my laptop and used a tape recorder. Every night, I went over the printouts of my laptop notes -- often seven or eight interviews a day, once as many as twelve -- marked them up with a highlighter pen and entered the most important points in my "running summary sheets."

As usual, I wrote the story based on my laptop notes, then went back to the actual tapes and listened to every direct quote to make sure it was both word-for-word correct and in the proper context. Knowing that it would take a couple of days of around-the-clock work to complete that process alone, I felt the pressure of time even more acutely, especially as the number of interviews and documents began to mount. But oddly enough, that was the only pressure I really felt.

Many Times colleagues and several friends outside the paper told me they didn't envy me my assignment, "sorting out the lies and affixing the blame in your own office, with the whole journalistic community looking on," as one longtime friend put it. But I can honestly say I didn't feel any such pressure. I didn't think it was my job to affix blame or to call anyone a liar. I wanted to find out the facts to the best of my ability, lay them out as cogently and compellingly as I could, and let the readers -- journalists and nonjournalists alike -- judge for themselves what had happened and why and what it all meant. Fortunately, I'm blessed with a thick skin, so I've never worried much about what "they" will say about me and my stories. Various folks at the Times -- including several high-ranking editors -- have been so upset with my articles at various times that they've screamed at me or complained to the top editor or refused even to respond to my hallway "hello." But I've continued to do (and to enjoy) my job.

On this story, I felt I had the support of the staff going in -- and once Parks agreed to do the story, most people at the Times (and at the Staples Center) were cooperative, even if they were not all, shall we say, precise, candid, and in total accord in their recollections. Indeed, so many people at the Times seemed to suffer from a collective case of amnesia on so many key points that I began to wonder if perhaps some new, mind-altering drug had been introduced into the paper's internal water supply.

I had one other early problem. At our first interview, when Kathryn Downing gave me a stack of documents that I'd requested -- contracts and memos and financial statements -- she told me that all the financial data was "confidential" and so marked, "on blue paper." But I couldn't write a credible story without using detailed financial data. I made a snap decision not to argue the point with her. Although Parks had told me she supported his decision to do this story, she probably wasn't thrilled about it; since the necessary financial information would probably be available from other sources, why risk giving her a reason to protest to Parks or to try to circumscribe or prohibit my inquiries? I put the confidential blue sheets in an envelope and sealed it, without looking at them. When the time came, I'd show Cotliar my independent documentation and suggest that late on the night before publication, he send Parks a message saying he was aware of the confidential nature of some of the material Downing had given me, and if she complained that the material was in my story, Cotliar wanted Parks to know that he had seen my material from other sources and could assure him that I hadn't used hers.

Sure enough, I soon tracked down two or three other sets of the relevant financial material -- with no strings attached -- and that's what we did.

Inevitably, though, there were several other problems along the way. A few people didn't want to talk on the record. But I try hard not to use quotes from unnamed sources -- and haven't used a single one in more than fifteen years. On the Staples story, as on many others, that meant going back to some sources a number of times to get them on the record and -- with four sources -- it meant agreeing to check the quotes before using them (something I've never resisted, or regretted, doing). Ultimately, every quote in the story had a name attached to it -- and not one source backed off one word, neither before nor after publication.

How was I going to engage the lay reader in this complex tale about what might seem an esoteric subject? I decided fairly early on to write an introductory overview that introduced the key players and laid out the basic issues as forcefully as I could, ending with what I hoped would be intriguing questions designed to lure the reader into the bulk of the story. Then I would go into a detailed, dramatic (I hoped), chronological narrative about the Staples affair and its background and aftermath. In so doing, I was determined to avoid another contemporary blight on our profession -- reconstructed dialogue, the journalistic tale in which direct quotes and verbatim conversations tumble upon the page as if from vintage Hemingway -- except that the writer wasn't present for any of the conversations and didn't hear with his own ears any of the quotes. I decided to paraphrase, not quote, any conversation I didn't personally hear -- and to attribute it as well. It would not be "Parks told Downing . . . ." but "Parks says he told Downing . . . ." That probably made several passages seem a bit stilted and it may have robbed the narrative of some impact, but it seemed the only honest, fair way to tell the story, and that -- above all -- was my objective.

Although some saw my assignment as a traditional investigative job -- a search for a smoking gun -- I saw it more as what ABC's Peter Jennings once called "journalism as archaeology." Sure, I did find considerable evidence that the project probably could have been stopped before it was started if the right people had been paying more attention -- and that it could still have been aborted, before it was printed, if either Parks or Downing had realized what a grievous breach of editorial independence and integrity it represented. I found many inconsistencies in what top executives said they did and said -- and I found that a number of reporters and key editors had learned of the profit-sharing arrangement in the three weeks between printing and publication, during which time the magazine could have been burned or shredded or an accompanying disclosure could have been published. But no one even suggested taking any of those steps.

What interested me most, though -- before, during, and after my reporting -- was how all this had come to pass, how the deal itself had evolved, and how Mark Willes's blow-up-the-wall philosophy had created a climate and a culture in which the Staples scandal could occur, and occur without triggering alarm bells or protests among those editors and reporters who first heard about it. What I wrote in the end of the preface to my story, is that behind Staples was "a tangled tale of ignorance and arrogance, of blind loyalty and bad judgment, of deadened sensibilities and diminished standards." A series of incremental compromises had subtly undermined the independence of the editorial department in many ways; examining that erosion and the role it had played in Staples and its immediate aftermath was more important than the narrow specifics of Staples itself because of what it said about our newspaper -- and about our profession -- in a time of great upheaval and competitive pressure.

Regardless of what my story ultimately said, I knew there was bound to be considerable interest in it every step of the way at the Times, and -- being paranoid about my Times-related media stories, even under far less stressful circumstances -- I worried from Day 1 about how to safeguard the confidentiality of my material. My colleagues are honest, ethical professionals, but they are journalists, and journalists are curious. Besides, being a technological ignoramus, I could just envision committing some computer screw-up that would deliver all my notes and first drafts directly to Parks's computer, if not to Downing's in-box.

Even before I started writing, I took all my files home and, later, did all my organizing and writing away from the office -- in Microsoft Word, not the Times's own "Decade" word-processing system. Knowing that the story would have to be translated into Decade before publication, I spoke to Tom Kuby, editorial systems manager, about how to do that with maximum security.

"You can keep it in your personal basket," he said. "That's a security access level eight. No one in editorial, not even the editor, has higher than eight."

"How about you guys in IT?"

"We have access level nine."

"Can you create a new basket for George and me with an access level ten?"

Two days later, a message from Tom flashed across my computer screen: "The 'Winter' basket you requested has been added to your profile."

By phone, he set my mind at ease on another score: after the story was edited, we'd be able to compose it directly from that basket, without having to run it through the routine editing and production baskets, where it would have been accessible to many others.

"Perfect."

What was I so worried about? Parks had been true to his word and had taken a hands-off approach to the story, and there was no reason to believe that he (or Downing) would not continue to behave honorably. Still, I guess I was worried that some other curious, enterprising, and ambitious soul might see the story before publication and alert one of them to some particularly revealing or damaging passage and they would -- what? I don't know -- challenge me? Make me change it? Kill the story? I knew this was probably unreasonable and unfair -- my judgment a bit clouded, perhaps, by adrenaline and fatigue -- but why take chances?

Once the writing was well under way, I began to realize that this story was going to be longer than anything I'd ever written for the paper. It would fill multiple open pages, a special section unto itself. Now my paranoia took on a new form: if anyone in authority found out how long the story was going to be, "they" might object and call Cotliar and tell him to hold it to some specified, predetermined (inadequate!) length. I had great faith in Cotliar's judgment and wanted him to read it and form an opinion on whether I was off my rocker before anyone gave him any orders. I was fairly confident that he would agree with me -- and that, under the circumstances, no one would overrule him. But I decided to alert him that we were looking at a truly large story, even by my standards, to see if he already thought I was off my rocker.

He didn't blanche at the words "special section," so I kept writing. I also kept moving on several other fronts -- giving the photo desk updated lists of what we'd need from them, giving the art department the material necessary for various charts, graphs, montages, and other illustrative material, and enlisting the invaluable help and guidance of Steve Mitchell, the executive news editor on the metro staff, a man of great talent and integrity. Mitchell had done the layouts and made the final selections on design, art, and graphics for most of my stories over the years, and I wanted him -- needed him -- to do Staples. I also recruited David Rickley, the production and technology editor, who's forgotten more about the technical aspects of putting out a newspaper than most people ever knew. His responsibilities include serving as liaison between editorial and the folks who parcel out daily space. As the story developed I told him -- in strictest confidence, of course -- that we'd need a special section some time between December 17 and December 23. Could he discreetly find out which days toward the end of that period would be feasible from a production standpoint?

"No problem."

At about the same time, I spoke with both Cotliar and Mitchell about their recommendations for a copy editor and a slot man -- people we could trust not to discuss any of the contents outside our little group and, more important, good, tough editors who would challenge me and my conclusions and also catch any errors of omission or commission born of any of my manifest shortcomings (and most particularly of my crazed, three-hours-of-sleep-a-night rush to completion).

As the scope of the project -- and the extent of the erosion of editorial independence at the Times -- became clearer, I kept reminding myself that for all the paper's flaws, it still produced world-class journalism virtually every day. I also reminded myself that there probably wasn't another paper in the country that would print the story I was going to write -- and that there certainly wasn't another paper that would allow one reporter to exercise the latitude I had in all aspects of the story, from content and length to timing, staffing, art, and production.

On Monday, December 13, I called Cotliar and told him the story would be ready the next morning. My target date for publication was the following Monday, a day Rickley had told me was available.

"I still have some reporting holes to fill, and still have to go back to my tapes to check all the quotes," I said, "but if you don't get started now, we'll never get it in the paper on the twentieth. I can report during the day and check tapes at night while you and the desk guys are reading the story. Besides, I know how careful and conscientious you are; you'll read it all again, at least a couple of times."

I gave a copy to Mitchell at the same time. Even after I had cut the main story by almost 20 percent the night before, the total package, including two sidebars, was about 37,000 words. My best guess was that it would take twelve to sixteen pages, including art. (It wound up at fourteen.)

Ten hours after Cotliar got the story, he called with his editing suggestions. Virtually all were excellent. I incorporated them into the story, along with some changes engendered by my most recent reporting, and gave copies of the revised story back to Cotliar and to Mike Castelvecchi, our slot man, and to Larry Harnisch, our copy editor. Now it was time to put the story into Decade and work at the office.

We were offered an office on the third floor, in the newsroom. We preferred an office away from the newsroom and were given one on the first floor, with computers, telephones, lockable file cabinets, and new locks on the door. I asked for different locks, "with no master keys, just keys for those of us working on the project." The locks were changed within an hour as my teammates sat there, giggling and shaking their heads over my paranoia.

After Castelvecchi and Harnisch were through with the story -- improving it, as I knew they would -- I asked both of them, and Cotliar, to please go through it once more, looking for anything that could be deemed speculation or a cheap shot or an unsubstantiated charge, "anything at all that could undermine the credibility of the story." On one critical passage that made me uncomfortable, I asked all of them to listen to my tape of a portion of one interview with Kathryn Downing "to be sure I'm being absolutely fair." We listened to the brief taped exchange four times. They saw no reason to change the story. But that night, on the way home, it occurred to me that we might have focused on the wrong interview with the wrong person. The next day, I asked Castelvecchi to listen to a portion of an interview with Michael Parks on the same issue. Still not satisfied, I called both Parks and Downing and re-interviewed them on the one point in question, then modified the end to one of the chapters in response to their replies.

At Mitchell's suggestion, we decided to paste up the section early Saturday morning, when few people would be around. David Rickley set up a "burn bag" and tossed into it every scrap of type that was replaced or unused. When we were done, we pulled page proofs, and I took the actual boards home with me overnight and stayed up until three o'clock in the morning, reading and tinkering. I went back to the office four hours later to enter my fixes in the system. Cotliar was already there, and Rickley, Castelvecchi, and Mitchell joined us -- Rickley monitoring a second "burn bag" and keeping close tabs on the production schedule. He and Cotliar and I also coordinated release of the material to our national edition, our Web site, and the library databases in a way that wouldn't compromise security. Everything went smoothly, and Rickley, his assistant, Mike Edwards, and I hand-delivered the boards to a plant about six or seven miles away, where the northern California copies of the national edition were to be printed. Later that night, Edwards would be delivering an early edition of the main paper to Parks's house, as usual, and while we were waiting for the pre-press work on the national edition, I suggested that our section not be included in that delivery: "Shouldn't Michael get it with his regular home-delivered edition in the morning, just like everyone else?" Agreed.

When the presses finally started to run the national edition, I told Rickley that "even after thirty-one years in the business, I'm getting goose bumps."

He grinned. "If you're getting goose bumps with these little presses, you ought to come to the [main] Olympic plant about midnight when those big suckers get cranked up and start spewing out 75,000 papers an hour."

Great idea.

Shortly before midnight, with the boards back at Times Mirror Square for production of the main edition, I took my wife and son down to the Olympic plant to watch the next day's paper -- and our special section -- come rolling off the presses. Hearing that roar and rumble and watching the papers come pouring off the conveyor belts was not only exciting on a personal level, it seemed somehow a tangible, powerful reminder of something far more important -- the force that good newspapers can still be, even in this age of television, the Web, and the mega media merger. While I watched my son trying gingerly to extract a paper from the pile speeding past -- not to look at my story, Lord knows, but so he could tell his friends he was the first one to see the next day's sports section -- I found myself thinking, "We have to get past Staples. We have to turn the ship around. We have to make sure everyone understands that the real bottom line for newspapers isn't profits; it's integrity and credibility."