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TellZell.com: The Inkstained Retch Speaks Out

July 30th, 2008 by Celeste Fremon

sam-zell-2.gif

TellZell.com—-the homegrown blog that was originally launched
to give Times reporters, editors and other editorial staffers (fired and not) a place to share news, vent feelings, rage, greive and possibly plot insurrection—has now gotten nationwide attention. The increasingly well-read (and amusingly, if tragically written) site was created by an anonymous LA Times reporter (still not fired) who signs his posts: The Inkstained Retch.

Athough there has been speculation about The Retch’s identity, no one has yet unmasked him.

I contacted the honorable Mr. (or Ms.) Retch and asked if he’d mind answering a few questions about the blog’s genesis, its high and low points, and where he hopes and believes it can go from here.

His/her answers to all that and more are below:


1. What was the tipping point got you from Times journalist unhappy with Zell world, to Times journalist doing something about your unhappiness with Zell world by launching Tell Zell?

There was no single moment. It was more of a slow burn. First, Sam Zell and Randy Michaels took this “tour” of the Tribune empire. At each stop, it became more obvious that they had no new ideas and a great deal of contempt for journalism and journalists. They swore at a reporter in Orlando. Made off color references in Los Angeles. And called the entire Tribune operation in Washington “overhead.” Then Lee Abrams [TribCo's Chief Innovation Officer] started posting his long, unintelligible diatribes. Something just sparked. I figured I had to start writing.

2. Since you’ve launched the blog, what have been the three high points? By that I mean moments that you either saw that you were doing some good, or were helping express the feelings and thoughts or many, or saw how far it was reaching…or whatever it was that brought you satisfaction and made you feel the time you were putting in was worth it.

This is going to sound corny, but whatever. I’ve always enjoyed the comments section more than anything else. I get some trolls, some angry, unhelpful remarks. But mostly, I have felt like I get smart comments, on both sides of the issue. And that’s valuable to me.

High points would be: the banner drop; the distribution of bumper stickers inside the newsroom; and simply bringing attention to Sam Zell’s actions.

3. What have been the lowest points? (Either with the blog, or at the paper, or both)

I am constantly battling the thought that none of this matters. That nothing that we can do can stop Zell, or job cuts, or the dumbing down of the Los Angeles Times.

4. Have you had any contact with any of Zell’s people or do they just ignore you (and everybody else)?

I have had no direct contact from Zell or any of his people, so far as I know. but then, i don’t really know. I don’t have any real sense of who is reading the blog, or who is writing. it’s only fair. if I’m anonymous, so is everyone else, pretty much.

5. Has there been any attempt, that you know of, on the part of the Times management or the Tribune Corp. to find out who you are?

Not that I know of.

6. Are you doing this alone or are there secret minions and/or partners in Tell-Zelling?

No comment. [We took this as a yes to secret minions or partners, but we could be wrong.]

7. Do you take any precautions to avoid being discovered?

I don’t want to be discovered, so I’ve done what I can to keep it that way. I want the focus to be on creating a space where LA Times people, their readers and anybody else who cares about journalism can sound off. No more, no less.

8. What’s your favorite complement, fan letter, and/or expression of gratitude sent to the site?

It’s got to be from the guy who identified himself as a security guard at the paper on the day of the drop. He said, “I was one of the security guards, there this morning. Whoever did this we at the security dept support you.

It is sad to see the people you talk to on a daily basis leave. I might not say that they are friends that I would hang out with, but these are people who you say hi to and maybe chat it up for a couple of minutes. It sucks knowing that they will no longer be here.

I have no way of knowing, of course, if the [security guard's] post is authentic. but it sure did make me smile.

10. Have you received any interesting hate letters or outstandingly squirrely emails at TellZell?

I haven’t gotten any personal hate mail. but then, it’s hard to hate somebody that you don’t even know.

11. Is there one incident at the paper that you’ve found to be the most heartbreaking?

At the tribune in general, I thought the firings at the Morning Call and the Hartford paper were heartbreaking. Here are two small, good newspapers. and they are losing a quarter to a third of their staff. in a small town, a small community, that makes a tremendous difference.

At the la times, the firings are awful. They just wipe out morale and instill a culture of fear. It’s awful.

12. Other than the obvious (taking back the LA Times from the loathsome Sam Zell), are there short term/long term goals you have for Tell Zell?

I want to build a sense of collective ability. journalists are lone wolves by nature and training. so it’s hard for us to come together and agree on anything. I’m hoping that the blog is a way to get us to know ourselves, to realize that we have an ownership stake–both journalistically and financially, in the LA Times, in keeping the LATimes as a great, strong, full throated newspaper.

I’ve called my strategy Paper Cuts (b/c I like strategy names and b/c I like cute puns). The idea is that we all work together to do all sorts of things, big and small, to convince Zell to change his ways, or, failing that, get him to sell the paper. So we unionize, pass out bumper stickers, bake cakes, file lawsuits. We just do a ton of things and do them together, to tell Zell that he is wrong. I don’t know if it will work. I just know that not trying is guaranteed failure.

I mean, I don’t think Zell is trembling in his boots or anything. But I do think that he values his reputation. I do think that he wants to walk into country clubs and five star resorts and have people say, “There’s Sam Zell, the real estate genius! The man who completed the largest private real estate transaction ever! The grave dancer!”

I think Sam Zell will hate it if, instead, the whisper is: “There’s Zell, that guy who is ruining the LA Times. The guy who fired 500 reporters in the middle of an election year. The guy who likes puppies, and doesn’t want to cover Iraq and isn’t smart enough to run a newspaper.”

I want that to be the choice that he is facing.

13. From your perspective, have there been any heroes in this mess?

I think a hero has yet to emerge.

14. How hopeful are you that something can be done to rectify the awful stuff these fools are doing?

See above.

15. Now that you’ve run a blog, what do you feel that blogs can do to help preserve and/or expand the future of journalism in Los Angeles?

Doing the blog has been an incredibly interesting experience, I must admit. I’m a hardcore lover of MSM. I think that most people, most bloggers, get their information from MSM whether they like it or not, b/c we’re the ones with the resources to really sit down and report: do interviews, read audits, hang outside offices and ask questions. Check out the Big Burn series. i have a hard time imagining that a blogger will ever be able to do that. It’s just too much time, too much money, for any one person to invest.

So what has blogging taught me? The wisdom of the crowd. I always accepted in theory that my readers were smarter than I was. But until I began doing a blog, with its primacy on interactivity and reader feedback, I never felt it. Now, I think it’s incredibly dumb that every reporter doesn’t have his or her own blog page. I don’t know why reporters don’t spend 20 minutes responding to, and inspiring comment upon, their stories in interactive sessions with readers. I have gotten so much from the readers of the blog–practical information; useful tips; kind words; smart criticism. It’s hard to think that reporters operate without it.

To answer your question directly, blogging to me seems to be a way to build narrow communities of interest very effectively. I don’t see them, however, replacing the general circulation newspaper. It will be a tragedy for this country if we all end up reading only what we want to on newsgator. there must be some sense of community, some sense of broad, overarching belonging. I’m not sure that a single blogger will be able to do that very well.

Hope that helps.

NOTE: For another very smart dose of LA Times-related discussion, listen to Tuesday’s KCRW show, “The Politics of Culture,” with LA Observed’s Kevin Roderick hosting; guests included Los Angeles Times Editorial Page editor, Jim Newton, and LA Magazine editor, Kit Rachlis

Posted in Los Angeles Times, Los Angeles writers, media, Zell | 2 Comments »

2 Responses

  1. Woody Says:

    It’s so sad that the only source of news in the entire Los Angeles area is the L.A. Times. If it goes down, there is absolutely no other source for information.

  2. Marc Cooper Says:

    Good interview Celeste! Y’know, a professional press critic wrote me the other day and mused whether or not the people of Los Angeles actually give a damn about the fate of the Times are not. “I’ve heard of no riots in Silver Lake or Echo Park” he said. He was lamenting the public’s indifference rather than confirming the alleged irrelevance of the Times.

    But this notion of his has struck a chord with me. I’m not about to go use my car as a burning barricade for the L.A. Times (it’s hardly an institution that elicted much sympathy from me over the years). But you’d think the citizens of L.A. might actually do something to defend the concept of having a local, great newspaper. Though, you might have to think that again.

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