The once great Los Angeles Times
Talented, experienced journalists are now leaving the Los Angeles Times, and we alums feel depressed about the toll their departures will take on their lives and on Southern California.
Kevin Roderick reported on his LA Observed website (to which I am a contributor) that more than 70 people in the Times editorial department applied for the buyouts the Times’ owners are offering to reduce the size of an editorial staff that has already dropped from 1,000 to about 500. Daily weekday circulation, once more than a million, has dropped to 370,990, according to the Statista website. Advertising also has taken a heavy hit. If you are one of the dwindling number of home delivery subscribers, the decline is evident every time you pick up your thin morning paper or look early in the morning at the front stoops of your neighbors.
There is a real human dimension to these buyouts. Newspapers can have a lifelong hold on their workers. Not that it is always a kindly relationship. I am sentimental about these folks. Journalism can be a cruel business, even in a town where the movie business has elevated employer cruelty to Mount Everest heights. You’re only as good as your last story, the old saying goes — and it’s pretty much true.
Cynicism has helped protect me from disappointment and kept me grounded during moments of triumph. I retired from the Times as city editor after serving there for 30 great years as a reporter, editor and columnist. I got a memorable sendoff, with parties and enough speeches to make me feel I wouldn’t need a funeral. I really appreciated the farewells, but didn’t view them through rose-colored glasses. When it came time for my final words at a party the staff threw for me at Hank’s Bar in downtown Los Angeles, I rose, drink in hand, and instead of giving a teary goodbye speech, announced, “I think I’ll have another Jack Daniels.”
I thought about the Times years, as I often do, during a recent lunch with friends from the paper. It was a day when many on the staff were agonizing over whether to accept the buyout offer. One friend was taking it. She is of retirement age and ready to move on. Our other lunch partner had already left the Times and had a busy life.
We talked about the excitement of working at the paper, with its deadline pressure and our talented co-workers, who were much more amusing and crazy than colleagues you’d encounter in a law office or even among the techies at Google or Amazon. We recalled the mixture of good and bad — more good than bad for us — that constituted a Times career. As the Times’ Las Vegas correspondent John Glionna put it in a farewell email quoted on LA Observed: “Time to say adios. After 26 years, it’s my time to say goodbye to an LA Woman, a vexing siren who has been cruel at times, but who has held all of my professional attentions for nearly half of my life.”
Glionna is a talented and imaginative person. With his resourcefulness, he’ll no doubt find there’s plenty of life after the Times, as will others. But his departure, and that of the rest, will badly weaken the Times.
Targeted in the buyouts were the highest-paid journalists, the veterans. Buying out the most senior of the editorial staff was a dollars-and-cents decision, to counter dropping revenue and stock prices. Tribune Publishing, which owns the Times, the Chicago Tribune, the Baltimore Sun and other papers, has as its largest stockholder the Los Angeles investment firm Oaktree Capital Management. An Oaktree source told the Chicago Tribune that the firm, which owns 18 percent of Tribune Publishing, approves the aggressive cost-cutting measures by CEO Jack Griffin to offset revenue declines.
It presumes the Times, the most profitable paper in the chain, can cut its way to more profits.
But what does Oaktree care about civic responsibility, even in its hometown of Los Angeles? What does Chicago care about Los Angeles, except for the Times’ bottom line?
I don’t know who will want to read their product. A weakened website and a thin print product already are driving away customers. And it is about to get worse. If any of those leaving are replaced, it will likely be with low-paid, inexperienced reporters, editors and interns.
Joe Saltzman, a veteran USC journalism professor, explained what this means. In a Facebook post, he wrote, “What major news media companies haven’t learned is that once you empty the newsroom of experienced, talented, prize-winning reporters and editors, you lose the essence of who you are, and the young, inexperienced journalists have no one to listen to when it comes to learning how to become those departing journalists. That is the real tragedy of what is happening at the Los Angeles Times and other newspapers as well as broadcasting newsrooms around the country.”
Most importantly, perhaps, the Southland is losing a civic institution of irreplaceable value. The Times was once the most important force in Los Angeles government and politics — far too much so, actually. In its prime, its coverage became fair and deep. In a mix of news, columns and editorials, the paper served as a watchdog and a force for civic good. Experienced reporters, skilled at their craft and knowledgeable about their turf, made the paper a powerful influence. Covering the news in a manner that accomplishes this, and editing the reporters’ stories, is a job beyond the capabilities of most rookies and the resources of the now-diminished Los Angeles Times.
Every part of the paper is losing, from sports to fashion, from government beats to entertainment. Experienced editors who can teach and guide youngsters are going. So are many copy editors, who have given the paper flawless professionalism and saved city desk editors like me from many mistakes.
People ask me why there are so many mistakes in the paper. It takes me a while to explain about copy desks and what they do; about the other desks and editors; their relationship to reporters.
As I tell them this long story, I invariably get mad. For what I am telling them is the story of the death of a newspaper I believed in, and the scuttling of the careers of talented journalists who made it great.
Bill Boyarsky is a columnist for The Jewish Journal, Truthdig and LA Observed, and the author of “Inventing L.A.: The Chandlers and Their Times” (Angel City Press).