City Voice: L.A. Times faces tough job

One day at lunch with a group of reporters and editors, Dave Laventhol, then the publisher of the Los Angeles Times, was musing that journalists had become elitist,
separated from their communities, maybe even too educated.

Was my bachelor’s degree suddenly an encumbrance?

“Is it OK if you went to college but didn’t pay attention?” I asked. But after a moment’s thought, I understood what Dave was saying.

Reporters, the lifeblood of newspapers, must be connected to the communities they cover.

This is an especially difficult job here because there are so many communities. As the Times’ Tim Rutten said in his “Regarding Media” column last week, the paper must connect with the widely dispersed Latino, Chinese American, Korean American, Armenian, Russian, Persian, Pakistani and Indian immigrant communities and their Americanized children. He also noted that “the Times circulation area is home to an African American middle class that rivals that of Atlanta and to an extraordinarily loyal Jewish readership that demands sophisticated news coverage from Washington and the Middle East.”

This is very difficult to do, and none of us who have tried have succeeded completely. Part of the reason is the size and diversity of the Times’ market. Part of it is related to the structure of the paper and the nature of reporters. None of it has anything to do with bigotry, racism or anti-Semitism among the staff.

Some of you will not believe my last point. Certainly not the reader who e-mailed me: “My friend: The L.A. Times anti-Israel propaganda is not imagined. I stopped reading the paper because it frightened me to the core. It sounded like Passion plays the Russian Orthodox priests used to foment hatred against Jews at Easter. We know that Jewish patronage made the paper. And now we will bring it down by ignoring it.”

I replied, “I don’t know about the Passion play analogy. And when I was there, I didn’t see too many Cossacks running through the newsroom raping Jewish women. Yes, we had Jewish women there, plus a Jewish publisher, a Jewish managing editor, other Jewish reporters and editors.”

If you agree with this reader, read no more.

Part of the coverage problem lies in the reporters themselves. Dave wasn’t exactly correct when he said they had become elitists, especially here. There are so many rich, flashy people in L.A. — law, entertainment and other businesses — that the journalists, with their long-stagnating pay, are in the middle class. Some are in the upper reaches, but still not worth a maitre d’s notice.

Yet, because of their education, background and leadership, too many reporters fail to dig into the many facets of Southland life. Most reporters and editors are secularists in an area where religion is important to so many. Most are far from the immigrant experience in a Southland filled with immigrants. Most are well educated and seek the company of the same kind of people.

When I started at the Oakland Tribune in the 1950s, a newspaper was essentially a blue-collar business. A substantial part of the staff had not gone to college. Those that had usually worked their way through.

We were overworked, underpaid and screamed at by a frightening assistant managing editor, Mr. Norton. We resembled our blue-collar city, and we felt at home in the bars, restaurants, police stations and schools, which many of us had attended.

Still, even the most rarified, wine-sipping Stanford grad should be able to pull news from a hostile, high school grad cop. Charm and cunning overcome many an obstacle, but only if the reporters are out on the street using such skills. And this is one of the Times’ great failures.

Cost-cutting has dismantled the large structure created to cover the sprawling area. Long gone are special editions on the Westside, the Inland Empire, the San Gabriel Valley, Southeast Los Angeles and the San Fernando Valley. The Orange County edition was sharply reduced. Nothing has filled the gap.

Another reason for the failure is the Times’ philosophy of local reporting.

Glory goes to elite investigative teams, rather than to reporters who prowl dangerous neighborhoods for a story on gang killings, as Times reporter Andrew Blankstein did recently in a story about the area east of Robertson Boulevard, or to those who explore the foibles and oddities of our many communities, as Bob Pool does.

Yet it is this kind of reporting and storytelling that connect the paper to readers. Steve Lopez’s column is great because he is a tireless explorer of the city, as well as being a terrific writer. In Bob Sipchen’s “School Me” column and blog in the paper and on the Times Web site, students, teachers and administrators are real people — not the usual cardboard characters you find in the Times. It helps that Bob is an L.A. public schools parent.

A new editor came aboard the Times this week, joining his fellow Chicagoan, the new publisher. They should increase the local reporting staff, put more reporters on the street and have them follow the advice of Sam Smith, the populist, old school editor of the Progressive Review, who said, “The basic rules of good journalism in any time are fairly simple: Tell the story right, tell it well and, in the words of the late New Yorker editor, Harold Ross, ‘If you can’t be funny, be interesting.'”

Until leaving the Los Angeles Times in 2001, Bill Boyarsky worked as a political correspondent, a Metro columnist for nine years and as city editor for three years. You can reach him at