A sign of the times for the L.A. Times (and the Sun-Sentinel) - PINAC News
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A sign of the times for the L.A. Times (and the Sun-Sentinel)

It wasn’t too long ago that I considered The Los Angeles Times the best newspaper in the country.

It was just as thorough, compelling and international as The New York Times, but with much better writers. Whereas the New York Times maintained a degree of Fifth Avenue pretentiousness,


It wasn’t too long ago that I considered The Los Angeles Times the best newspaper in the country.

It was just as thorough, compelling and international as The New York Times, but with much better writers. Whereas the New York Times maintained a degree of Fifth Avenue pretentiousness, the LA Times possessed a certain Hollywood flair.

As recently as the late 1990s, the writing styles of these newspapers were clearly defined. The New York Times was Philip Roth and Norman Mailer. The LA Times was Charles Bukowski and James Elroy. And The Miami Herald, which was once a very well-written newspaper, was Elmore Leonard.

One of the best articles I’ve ever read was an LA Times preview of the 2002 Rose Bowl game between the Miami Hurricanes and the Nebraska Cornhuskers, a game I saw live and will never forget. Of course, as a Canes’ fan, I’m biased.

Unfortunately, The LA Times is quickly becoming another corporate rag, another irrelevant bundle of wasted ink space. Especially after the Tribune Company fired Managing Editor James O’Shea this week for refusing to cut $4 million from the newsroom budget.

But like the true journalist he was, O’Shea went down swinging, unleashing his true thoughts about Tribune to the newsroom:

One thing I want put on the record, though, is that I disagree completely with the way that this company allocates resources to its newsrooms, not just here but at Tribune newspapers all around the country. That system is at the core of my disagreements with David. I think the current system relies too heavily on voodoo economics and not enough on the creativity and resourcefulness of journalists….

The Tribune Company also owns the Sun-Sentinel, which means the Sentinel will remain in the passive mode against the Miami Herald rather than capitalize in what could be the fiercest newspaper battle in the country.

O’Shea is the third LA Times editor to get ousted since 2005 for refusing to cutback the newsroom budget, starting with John Carroll, who ended up cutting 200 jobs only for the Tribune Company to demand more cutbacks. He refused and stepped down.

But despite Carroll’s refusal to further trim the budget, the Tribune Company reported a profit margin of 20 percent that year, which would be considered an excellent year in almost any other industry.

Back in 1999 when I was covering night cops for the San Bernardino Sun in an area which had recently been named “Murder Capital of the United States”, I would read the LA Times every night after I came home from work.

This was how I would unwind from the constant barrage of fires and murders and drive-bys and rollovers accidents, none of it which could go uncovered because we were in the midst of a bloody newspaper turf war with the Riverside Press Enterprise.

Back then, I didn’t have a computer. I didn’t have a TV. And I didn’t have the corporate cynicism I have today.

But I did have Column One, the daily article posted on the left-hand column of the LA Times front page that at least back then, would tackle a wide-range of compelling subjects from the Sunset Strip to the Gaza Strip.

Although these articles were extremely long, they had the ability to grasp my attention until the end. Subconsciously, these articles became nightly writing lessons for me in the same way Edna Buchanan inspired me to eventually become a newspaper reporter 15 years earlier.

It might seem laughable now, but my goal back then was to write for the LA Times. I envisioned myself globe-trotting through some exotic country where I would write stories and process photos while sipping exotic beers served by exotic – and erotic – women.

I envisioned my byline on Column One with the added difference that it would be my photos running with the article rather than some separate photographer, as usually was the case.

When I was recruited by The Arizona Republic in early 2000, I figured I was on my way to reaching that goal for it was a huge leap for me circulation-wise and salary-wise. At the time, the Republic was the 13th largest paper in the country, making it a “a major metropolitan newspaper”, which basically means, I had reached the Big Leagues.

It was only a few years earlier after I had returned from Europe where I was working for a 3,000 circulation paper on the border of New Mexico called the Deming Headlight. Nobody can deny I had paid my dues.

At that time, the Republic, like the LA Times, was family owned, which means they had an emotional investment in the community they covered, something that is lacking with most newspapers today in this age of media conglomeration.

I had developed a reputation as a solid breaking news reporter, so I was recruited to be an online reporter for the Republic’s new website. Things went very well for me during the first six months. And there was never a lack of breaking news. And I loved the challenge of getting the story up on the website before the 5 o’clock news.

On many occasions, I would write the story in my head as I drove back to the office, dictating the words through a cell phone to an editor who would post the story. Under the guidance of online editor and techno-guru John Leach – a journalist who was ahead of his time – the Republic was poised to become one of the top multimedia newspapers in the country. And I was proud to be part of it.

But then Gannett fucked it all up.

I was only six months into the job when they announced the purchase. Just a few hundred miles west, the LA Times was getting purchased by Tribune. It was a horrible way to kick off the millennium. A sign of things to come.

In both situations, it was a case of an older newspaper owner passing the paper down to his children, who could not resist the temptation of a multi-million deal. Locally, it is known as the Joe Robbie syndrome.

Gannett, the largest newspaper company in the country and owner of the USA Today, is renowned for its McNews style of cookie-cutter journalism. It is known for its shallow articles and colorful graphics.

Gannett is a very formulatic newspaper company and it implements rules that state only a certain amount of stories can jump from the front page to the inside pages, which means that if you have a late-breaking story, you need to keep it under eight inches, even if you have 12 inches of substantial material.

This forces the reporter to cut relevant information from the story, making it less balanced. Gannett also has a tendency to shy away from the controversial stories and focus on fluff.

The bigwigs always claimed that numerous reader surveys stated that they prefer shorter, less informative articles. They insisted that we were only giving the readers what they wanted.

But in the almost four years I was there, I did not see a single survey, yet I spoke to numerous readers who indicated otherwise. My suspicion is that the only readers who took the survey were the corporate advertisers, who wanted more space for their ads.

The first thing Gannett did after buying the Republic was dismantle its online department. They figured they didn’t need two reporters covering breaking news for the website when they could have all the reporters on the newspaper staff produce stories for the website – in addition to their normal duties of writing articles for the print edition. Then they shipped me out to a bureau in Mesa, a city of Mormons and Meth-heads, to do just that.

And that was where I met the Boss from Hell, the man who became my nemesis over the next three-and-a-half years. He was a vindictive bastard. One day I will write about him.

I couldn’t help but think of him when I read O’Shea’s final words for my nemesis was nothing like that. He was a complete corporate sell-out who ended up running the newspaper and running me out of the newspaper in the process, not to mention running me out of the newspaper business itself.

In hindsight, he did me a huge favor because today every newspaper in the country is becoming Gannettized. Over one million readers served, not a single one informed.

Below I posted O’Shea’s farewell email to the newsroom; a man who stands true to his Irish heritage by standing up for literary and journalistic quality.

The corporations may have won the battle. But never underestimate the troopers who are still out there.

-30-

One thing I want put on the record, though, is that I disagree completely with the way that this company allocates resources to its newsrooms, not just here but at Tribune newspapers all around the country. That system is at the core of my disagreements with David. I think the current system relies too heavily on voodoo economics and not enough on the creativity and resourcefulness of journalists….
This company, indeed, this industry, must invest more in solid, relevant journalism. We must integrate the speed and agility of the Internet with the news judgment and editorial values of the newsroom, values that are more important than ever as the hunger for news continues to surge and gossip pollutes the information atmosphere.

We need to tell readers more about Barack Obama and less about Britney Spears.

I made these farewell remarks in the newsroom today and I wanted to share them with everyone in case they took off the holiday and were unable to attend. I wish all of you the best and thank you for all of the help you’ve given me over the last 14 months.

By now I am sure you have all heard I am leaving the Los Angeles Times after 14 months as editor of the paper. I will never forget the day that I walked into this newsroom, which was furious about the firing of my predecessor, Dean Baquet. As I entered the Globe Lobby, the security guard handed me a pass. It was good for one day. I remember thinking this was going to be one of the toughest days of my life. Actually, today is probably a little tougher. I am leaving here after making many great friends and before I got a chance to do everything that I wanted. But that’s life and I accept it.

I know there’s a lot of talk about why I am leaving so let me set the record straight. In discussions about the current and future budgets, it became clear that Publisher David Hiller and I didn’t share a common vision for the future of the Los Angeles Times. In fact, we were far apart. So David decided he wanted a new editor. As I’ve said on numerous occasions over the past 14 months, I intended to stay here and lead this newspaper to the greatness it deserves. But David decided he wanted to terminate my employment and get another editor. I wish the new editor the best.

Although I didn’t really accomplish all of the goals that I set when I arrived, I know that this newsroom today is better off than when I walked into the door, and I am proud of all that we did together. We’ve accomplished a lot in just 14 months. When I came to this newsroom, I pledged to maintain the quality of the LA Times, and I did, even though I had to cut budgets and shrink the staff.

Despite those cutbacks, we successfully transformed this place into a true interactive newsroom with a web site that is far more successful than when I came. In fact, traffic on LA Times.com was up by a staggering 187 million page views over December 2006, an extraordinary achievement and one that should generate pride in our ranks. Our coverage of the fires that’s truly worthy of a Pulitzer Prize is just one example of why record numbers of print and online readers depend on this newsroom. During my tenure, we also turned around a Sunday magazine that was drowning in red ink when I arrived; it’s now rebounding and is in the black. With a modest investment in new resources, we created a new fashion section that generates millions in new print and online ad revenues and a successful new Calendar weekend section. The formula for success? A small investment in new resources more than pays for itself with added revenues. We also created a new multi-media Guide section and web site; we redesigned Travel; we stopped the bleeding in circulation by being one of four papers in the country whose daily circulation was up in the last reporting period; and we broke news, the heartbeat of a newsroom, lots of it. The Sheriff Corona story; the diversion of U.S. anti-terrorism aid in Pakistan; I could go on and on. The quality of the paper under my time as editor didn’t decline. I am proud of that given the financial pressures we faced. And most important, there’s a talented stable management team in place that cares about the news that flows out to the public under the name of the Los Angeles Times.

This is an incredibly talented newsroom and I’ve really enjoyed getting to know many of you. I think Steve Lopez is the best daily newspaper columnist in the nation, one of a few that I would compare favorably to Mike Royko. And that’s saying a lot for someone from Chicago. There are lots of others who I could name but I don’t have the time. I didn’t get the time or opportunity to get to know some of you better and I regret that. One criticism I accept is that I spent too much time in my office and not enough time in the trenches, where I belong. So I apologize if I seemed a bit remote. As anyone who knows me well will tell you, that is not like me. I didn’t make enough time to do what I’m really good at: rolling up my sleeves and editing a story.

This is a tough time in the company and the industry. I understand that. I spent much of my career covering business and economics. I understand the realities of the bottom line. I am not some naïve, starry-eyed journalist who can’t accept economic reality. I know you have to cut back in hard times. I’ve done that more often than I care to mention. I also know this is a time of transition with change sweeping throughout the industry. But when you don’t agree with the future course of the newspaper it’s best to simply move on. There are plenty of other challenges out there for me and I don’t intend to sit around idle. There are bike rides to be had, books to write and hopefully another opportunity or two to make a difference. I am not a quitter.

One thing I want put on the record, though, is that I disagree completely with the way that this company allocates resources to its newsrooms, not just here but at Tribune newspapers all around the country. That system is at the core of my disagreements with David. I think the current system relies too heavily on voodoo economics and not enough on the creativity and resourcefulness of journalists. We journalists have our faults, but we also have a lot to offer. Too often we’ve been dismissed as budgetary adolescents who can’t be trusted to conserve our resources. That is wrong. Journalists and not accountants should seize responsibility for the financial health of our newspapers so journalists can make decisions about the size of our staffs and how much news remains in our papers and web sites.

The biggest challenge we face — journalists and dedicated newspaper folks alike – is to overcome this pervasive culture of defeat, the psychology of surrender that accepts decline as inevitable. This mindset plagues our business and threatens our newspapers and livelihoods. I believe that when Sam Zell understands how asinine the current budgetary system is, he will change it for the better, because he is a smart businessman and he understands the value of wise investment. A dollar’s worth of smart investment is worth far more than a barrel of budget cuts.

This company, indeed, this industry, must invest more in solid, relevant journalism. We must integrate the speed and agility of the Internet with the news judgment and editorial values of the newsroom, values that are more important than ever as the hunger for news continues to surge and gossip pollutes the information atmosphere. Even in hard times, wise investment — not retraction – is the long-term answer to the industry’s troubles. We must build on our core strength, which is good, accurate reporting, the backbone of solid journalism, the public service that helps people make the right decisions about their increasingly complex lives. We must tell people what they want to know and – even more important — what they might not want to know, about war, politics, economics, schools, corruption and the thoughts and deeds of those who lead us. We need to tell readers more about Barack Obama and less about Britney Spears. We must give a voice to those who can’t afford a megaphone. And we must become more than a marketing slogan. I know I can rely on this newsroom to do this.

Lastly I want to make it clear that I didn’t quit. Anyone in a top newsroom management job during tough times always wrestles with a crucial question: Where is the line? At what point do you go from “I can deal with this” to “this is simply wrong. ” When I was Managing Editor of the Chicago Tribune, I always thought my line was 600 newsroom employees. If the publisher demanded cuts that would take the newsroom below that level, I would leave because I felt staffing would slip to a level that would not allow me to sustain the quality newspaper that the community deserved. The Trib had 610 people in the newsroom when I left.

So when I got here, I wondered anew: Where’s my line: Would it be a newsroom of 800 people? 700? But then I realized the folly of that kind of thinking. I’d been around the accountants and their “metrics” too long. The line you draw is this: Do I believe in the course we’ve set for the future? If the answer is Yes, if I thought the LA Times could resolve its problems by getting smaller and smaller, by being gradually diminished, then I would stay. If not, (and I don’t) then I told myself to take a stand and say enough is enough. If you have to consider closing foreign bureaus and cutting back in other parts of the paper to free up the money needed to cover the Olympics and the most historic political campaign in modern times, well to me that’s no plan for the future, that is not serving the interest of readers. It is simply stupid. Even though we face tough and demanding times and I sympathize with those who face daunting revenue challenges, I don’t believe that we will succeed long term by giving up; by taking steps that I think will gradually diminish newspapers. I decided to take my stand and say: Change the way we do things. I made that decision and I will live with the consequences. And when I walk through the Globe Lobby for the last time, I can guarantee you that I won’t regret taking that stand. I believe history will prove me right. When this industry stops relying so much on cuts and starts investing in Journalism, it will prosper because it will be serving the best interests of our readers. That’s when we will prosper. I wish you all the best and with that its time to say of my tenure here:

Dash 30 Dash.

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