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Ripped from the Headlines
Six former Los Angeles Times editors on newspaper highs, circulation lows (thanks, Internet!), and the odds (don’t bet on it) of owner Sam Zell saving the day
IN RECENT YEARS, as the American newspaper has devolved from public trust to underperforming asset, the top editorial slot at the Los Angeles Times has become, at best, a temp job. James O’Shea was the most recent casualty, the first since the Tribune Company’s takeover last year by real estate maverick Sam Zell, whose expletive-spewing, Ahab-like pronouncements promise to make the era preceding him seem like an Eden of calm and stability. O’Shea, along with five of his Times predecessors, sat down with us for the frankest of interviews during these turbulent times.
William F. Thomas
August 1971 to January 1989
Editorial staff in 1989: About 1,200
Peak circulation: 1.1 million daily; 1.4 million Sunday
MY TIME AS EDITOR WAS DELIGHTFUL. When I was there, we had a publisher who was totally supportive, both in financial and in general terms, all the way around. His name was Otis Chandler. I was editor for 18 years, and I think in my first year he told me he wanted me to run my job as I saw fit; he didn’t intend to interfere unless something was cataclysmic. We could put out the paper we wanted to put out with few restraints and lots of encouragement.
As for saying “bleep you” to an employee, which Mr. Zell has apparently done: Heavens, Otis would never have done that. I can imagine him saying it to me afterward, but in private. Otis, although no prude, was propriety personified. He was a hell of a good guy.
I’ve heard my motto is supposed to have been “do it once, do it right,” but I never told anybody that. Everybody who worked for us had the idea that they didn’t ever want to get it wrong. Not anything. The errors page was a very galling place for anybody who ever showed up on it, and it should be that way. People are going to make mistakes, you can’t fault people—you just have to be aware of their limitations and strengths and work with them. That’s really an important thing. People have distinct strengths, and you have to put them in the right job that they can do and keep them away from the things they can’t do. We had reporters who were wonderful biographers and personality profilers—and they could explain people but were just no damn good at expository writing. So you assigned them to their strengths. We had a few people who could do anything, too.
“Mission statement.” I have always hated that expression, and the idea of “the vision thing.” But to boil it right down, you had to make the paper as good—as complete, thorough, and accurate—as you possibly could. And interesting, too. That meant you never really had enough of anything.
Back then there was a feeling of almost endless limits, which is a bit different from where the industry is today. The budget had to be sensible. You had to submit it and defend it going in. But I never experienced any real restraints on anything we wanted to do for budget reasons. Maybe my ambitions were too small! We put in a flock of new bureaus all over the place, the travel budget was going up. The only limit I recall was when they started enforcing a “no-first class” rule. You used to be able to fly first class if your trip was more than 1,000 miles, and they changed that. Pretty tough, huh?
Shelby Coffey III
January 1989 to October 1997
Editorial staff in 1989: About 1,200
Peak circulation: 1.2 million daily; 1.5 million Sunday
IT WAS FOR ME A TREMENDOUSLY stimulating time. The paper was so big and had big plans. We were able to add the Ventura County edition, build up the Orange County edition, add foreign bureaus, add to the Washington bureau, set up investigative teams—in Los Angeles, Orange County, and Washington. We were able to add over 100 staffers. We did a redesign of the paper, went to color—all these things that we now take for granted, but it was a pretty big change at the time. There were always new things to do, new challenges to meet.
Then after a couple of years, following the fall of the Berlin Wall and the implosion of the Soviet Union, the federal government decided it was going to get a peace dividend. The aerospace industry really tightened up. We entered a regional recession as well as a nationwide one. Southern California lost 200,000 to 250,000 relatively high-paying jobs, and that had a big ripple effect. We did our first [staff] buyouts then. That was a difficult period.
Meanwhile, another media world was dawning, much of it in Northern California. Will Hearst, publisher of the San Francisco Examiner and a good friend of mine, invited me to come up for the crossbay World Series in 1989. Will was one of the first print guys to go really techie, and he gathered friends from Silicon Valley, including Scott McNealy from Sun Microsystems and this guy from Seattle by the name of Bill Gates. We all sat in Will’s box, and afterward they were very nice over dinner about keeping me in the conversation. As they talked about their digital world and dreams of the future, it was like scales falling from my eyes. I remember coming back and talking to Times Mirror people and telling them that this Internet is not a fad, it is not going away, and you guys need to get going on this thing. To its credit, Times Mirror made a major investment in Netscape, but so many of its Web efforts didn’t work.
Now the major issue confronting the whole industry is, How do you build into a digital future? How does a business model work if you’re getting 10¢ per eyeball on the digital side when you’re used to getting a dollar per eyeball on the print side?
I spent a lot of time with Otis Chandler. That’s how I got there—I went weight lifting with him in Washington, and we hit it off. He was such an interesting guy, and he was great for giving the long—and I mean long—historical view, as well as a guy who liked the new. I had taken up boxing, as Otis had. There’s an expression Otis used: “You have to keep punching, because you’ve always got that puncher’s chance.” I’m sure he’d be saying it about the digital world today—you have to keep punching.
Another thing Otis said: He thought that Los Angeles was held together by three elements—sunshine, the freeway system, and the Los Angeles Times. There are generations of politicians and government leaders who have stopped and said to themselves, “Hmm, what I’m about to do—how’s that going to look on the front page of the Times tomorrow?” That gives pause. And though giving pause is rarely what a newspaper is given credit for, it’s an important role, vital even. It’s a role that changes history.
October 1997 to April 2000
Editorial staff in 1997: About 1,200
Peak circulation: 1.1 million daily; 1.4 million Sunday
WHEN I BECAME EDITOR, I WON from the publishers, first Mark Willes and then Kathryn Downing, a no-layoffs pledge. I did have one buyout. I think 22, maybe 25, people took it. At the same time, though, we found resources for our Latino Initiative. It designated about 15 people, mostly reporters, to cover areas of particular interest to Latinos and where Latinos were active. We also found the resources for some special sections, including three on education that shaped the gubernatorial election, because education became a leading issue.
I was at the point of a decision in late 1999, early 2000, that all breaking news needed to go on the Web. By the time the newspaper comes out, people will have seen and heard it already on TV, radio, and the Internet. The year I left, in the 2000 budget we added 22 positions for a continuous news desk for latimes.com. They were built into a newsroom remodel. Then the paper was sold, and they were taken out—deleted—because Tribune Interactive took over with its Chicago-based, top-down approach.
If I were the editor today—I’m not applying for the job—and if I had 400 fewer journalists than I had in the year 2000, along with the pressure for instant coverage on the Web, where would I find the people for all of this?
You have to get more imaginative in your coverage choices. The Los Angeles Times should not run and hunt with The New York Times and The Washington Post. It’s sui generis. It needs to be reported, written, and edited for the people of Southern California. They’re not provincials, though. They live in the city that has the potential to be the world capital of the 21st century. If I were the editor, I would have a passion for understanding the people of Los Angeles, of Southern California. How do they see the future? What are their interests? What will their interests be?
International reporting is stuck in the wrong paradigm. First, if you are Korean, you can get news about Korea online from Seoul in far greater depth than the L.A. Times could ever provide. Second, how many stories do you read, even now, about why the United States needs to fear Russia? About China and how we have to be afraid of China? I’m not speaking about the L.A. Times; I’m speaking generally. We need a new paradigm. Why are children in Singapore so much better at math than our children? How is Japan dealing with an aging population that is increasingly on an inverted pyramid, resting on a smaller and smaller active workforce? This is a question we have to face. How does Australia, which is immigrant hungry, settle its immigrants? How do they find jobs?
It won’t do to say people don’t want to read about these things. That’s an excuse. Our job is to make interesting what’s important. We can’t be chasing after Britney Spears all the time. Maybe people are interested in Britney Spears, so there’s TMZ. I’d give them the Web site address. How do you make interesting what’s important? Better writing, better writing, better writing. Usually shorter writing. Better editing, smarter editing. The first question I used to ask before I wrote a story was “What do I want it to say?” Today the first question needs to be “Whom do I want to reach? Who is going to be reading it?”
Then I’d find that I still didn’t have enough people. I don’t think my friends in the newsroom will like to hear this, but they have to do more work. There are stonecutters in the Times newsroom, people who take a very long time to write a very good story, but they are known in the trade as stonecutters. I wouldn’t want to lose the power of storytelling or the ability to bind facts together in ways that help people understand them better. Sure, it takes time. But some of those stories get overreported. I’d want to work with a growth-minded publisher. If there are 700 reporters and editors left, though, that’s a fantastic number. Good work is absolutely doable on a smaller scale.
John S. Carroll
April 2000 to August 2005
Editorial staff in 2000: About 1,200
Peak circulation: 1.1 million daily; 1.4 million Sunday
IT WAS MY FIRST WEEK, AND SOMEBODY said, “Can you say a few words at the [Times] book festival?” I thought it would be in a church basement with a few people, but it was a production, like the Oscars. I had a drink in the glorious L.A. evening, and I thought how wonderful this was. Would it be like this all the time?
I was in L.A. again recently. The paper was better than I expected. In spite of all its travails, it’s still a better paper than most Americans have—few Americans have a paper that’s even close. It’s a hell of a paper. But the problem for somebody heading up the Times today is much more difficult, more intractable, than the one I faced.
Just before I became editor, there had been a breach of journalism ethics, the Staples affair, when the paper went into a business partnership with an advertiser it was writing about. There was a built-in solution—the entire newsroom rose up and said, “This will not be tolerated.” From then on, it wasn’t. Today the newsroom can’t rise up and say, “The shattering of our business model by the Internet is intolerable.” We have to live with it. Staples might have been a problem on a higher plane, namely ethics, and this is a mere business problem—but it’s the kind of problem that can do you in.
If I knew the answer, believe me, I wouldn’t be sitting here in Lexington, Kentucky, writing a book. The future is on the Web, but nobody has figured out how to make enough money on the Web to sustain journalism at the level that L.A. Times readers have come to expect. When you’re the editor of a paper and you’re engaged in news, you’re probably not the best person to make sweeping changes, because you’re going after stories, spending all your hours on specific things. But if I had it to do over again, I might have taken some time off and tried to figure out where the Web was going and tried to do something about it.
At the John F. Kennedy School of Government at Harvard, I did some of that after I left the Times. I read the blogs and interviewed 50 people involved with the future of newspapers as a business. There wasn’t any point in interviewing news people, because they were so floored by the change, they didn’t know any more than I did. Then I interviewed people in high finance and technology, and I started to get a clearer, but quite bleak, picture. A farseeing editor in 2000 might have set out to create Web sites that would dominate fields important in Southern California—for example, movies. Why not build the complete database for movies? Go there if you want to know who a gaffer was in a 1932 production, or if you want to learn about current releases. It could be the place for movie junkies. You’d draw movie advertising. There were things that could have been done at the time to help the paper flourish in the digital world and to bring in some money. Today that world feels more crowded.
Is that a solution? I don’t know. Newspapers are losing one revenue stream: circulation. The other revenue stream, advertising, is so competitive and cheap on the Web that it’s hard to make big money on it. So how do you sustain large-scale, expensive journalism? As an advertising vehicle, you’re competing with Web sites that assemble a staggeringly large audience and spend almost nothing on content. And the L.A. Times is spending well in excess of $100 million a year on content. How do you price your ads competitively with someone who is spending nothing?
I love newspapers. When I stand back, though, I know it’s not important that the world have large print papers around, but it is necessary that there be large teams of paid reporters covering town halls, cops, courts, governments, wars, and so forth, and the businesses to sustain that kind of coverage are ceasing to exist. That is a profound question of public policy. Who is going to pay the bills? Alternatively, how poorly informed can the American public become and still succeed at democratic self-government?
Zell? He has taken on a big one. He probably didn’t fully realize how devastating the loss of the business model is—and will be. But I would say, from reading about him and reading his memos, that he’s clearly intellectually more acute than the people he replaced. Maybe he’ll figure out how to preserve journalism as well as his capital.
I wouldn’t bet on it, though.
August 2005 to November 2006
Editorial staff in 2005: About 950
Peak circulation: 870,000 daily; 1.2 million Sunday
YOU COULD MAKE A CASE THAT I HAD THE misfortune to land when the paper was debating its ambitions. That wasn’t fun, but it was still a great newspaper. A big part of my day was running coverage of a city that had a remarkable new mayor, probably the most colorful in a generation; the coverage of a state with probably the most compelling governor in the country; and coverage of a nation riven by the war in Iraq, where we had a Baghdad bureau as good as any.
The 20 percent of my time that I spent dealing with a bad publisher—and I mean David Hiller, not Jeffrey Johnson—was not the dominant part of my day. I spent most of my time with a newsroom that really wanted to change and do great stuff. I brainstormed ideas with a staff that wanted leadership, and for a brief moment it seemed as if we could be the best paper in the country.
I almost didn’t become the editor. When John Carroll left, I was worried about being the editor who would have to take the paper down. I didn’t know Jeffrey Johnson, my first publisher, all that well, and I didn’t know he was going to be the fine publisher he turned out to be. I took the job, to be frank, because people started coming into my office with rumors that John was leaving, and they asked me to stay. I got notes from people I had persuaded to stay, saying it was my obligation to stay, too.
When people think John and I didn’t understand financial realities, they are wrong. We had already cut the hell out of the place. It got to be bad for business and journalism. That’s one reason they’re struggling with revenue now. They’ve cut too much—from the business side and the newsroom. They did it without any plan. It was mindless cutting to meet a number.
The cutters never understood or cared about journalism. When I left, I walked away from any kind of cash severance, because I refused to sign a pledge never to criticize the Tribune Company. They were baffled. They never understood that, as a journalist, I would never forfeit my right to speak out.
Tribune was not a good steward, but Zell seems to be worse. Tribune didn’t like the L.A. Times, but Zell seems to be flailing and making it up as he goes along. At least with Tribune, you could have a rational fight—they never shouted obscenities at me. I wish somebody could tell this guy that he’s presiding over important newspapers and that sounding like a knucklehead won’t work in the newspaper business. Doesn’t he understand that the best people at the Times are floating résumés across the country because of his bullying?
Shredding the Washington bureau, foreign bureaus—I think it’s unpatriotic. I thought businessmen were supposed to believe in bedrock Americanism. It’s stunning that I need to read only two or three newspapers to know what’s going on in the nation’s capital. The L.A. Times is one. Is it really getting to where the only ones covering what is going on in Iraq are The New York Times and The Washington Post? Is that really good for the country?
People who complain about what they see as media bias criticize coverage of the war. Is the answer reducing to two the papers covering a war in which hundreds of Americans are being killed? It’s stunning that these people won’t stop to realize what that really means. I think Sam should study the readership surveys. They show that Southern Californians care about local news but also about national and foreign coverage. Whoever is telling him otherwise is just saying what they think he wants to hear.
November 2006 to January 2008
Editorial staff in 2006: About 850
Peak circulation: 877,000 daily; 1.2 million Sunday
WHEN I FIRST GOT THE JOB, I WALKED INTO the newsroom, and everywhere I looked I saw a picture of Dean Baquet or Otis Chandler. “Oh, great,” I thought. “I’m up against a saint and a dead man! This isn’t going to be easy.”
It wasn’t. That first day, I addressed the staff in an honest and straightforward way. I said that I was a journalist first and foremost, not some hatchet man from the company in Chicago; that I would take an honest look at the situation; and that the only thing I had promised anybody was a straight answer. I tried to live that.
I had made a deal with publisher David Hiller. I didn’t want anybody telling me how many people I could hire. “Just give me a dollar figure, and I will be responsible for hitting that figure.” After ten months or so, I’d had a buyout, but I also had hired 76 new people; I had started a fashion section bringing in far more revenue than it cost; and I had begun turning the newsroom around to where it was serving the Internet. We were one of four papers with rising total daily readership. I began feeling that things were going right. Given what I’d walked into, just settling the place down was an achievement, but we had done more than that.
I guess it wasn’t good enough. I picked up rumors that the publisher had been talking about replacing me. He hadn’t spoken to me about that. Three or four months later, I was terminated. There were flashes of tension in our relationship, and I could see it coming. For most of 2007, there had been more flexibility in the budget than at the start of 2008. Toward the end of last year, I said that I would take steps budgetwise to help get the [Zell] deal done, but I didn’t want to be held to those standards afterward. Then, with the new leadership and the enormous debt the company took on, Hiller turned from flexible to inflexible.
We were never going to solve our problems simply by cutting. We had to increase revenues. We had to make some cuts—I knew that. But we also had to make some modest investments in the paper. Look at the fashion section. We had invested in it and made money. This was possible in other areas of the paper. You had to invest in the paper—I mean the printed newspaper, not just the Internet. We had to invest in resource-producing sections. That was the path forward.
They would say, “Yeah, but you’re not responsible for making the payments to the bankers.” It’s not realistic, though, to think you can make those payments without investments. I fear the current cuts are just the start. If they can’t increase revenues, they’ll be back in June saying, “We’re still not hitting our numbers. We need to cut staff and the budget some more.” If they keep doing that, then advertisers and readers will say, “Well, they aren’t investing in the paper. They don’t have faith in it. Why should we?” It’s not a good message to send, and it’s not true. Newspapers are still a good business.
I think Mr. Zell looks at newspapers as he looks at any business, but a newspaper isn’t any other business. It’s a public service. If you do a good job serving the public, then business will be good. Public service is not a dividend you decrease or increase when profits fall or grow. What the L.A. Times becomes will depend on Mr. Zell’s understanding of that.
I hope it’s a place where people can challenge authority more often. But I’m a reporter. You have to show me. I’ll believe it when I see it.
Illustration by Heads of State