Out-of-control forces raged long before Sam Zell arrived on the scene
I sat through a long evening of tedious speeches at the L.A. Press Club awards show this weekend and kept hallucinating about what the future holds for local media. Here are a few predictions:
Sam Zell will ruin the L.A. Times and avoid jail time by copping an insanity plea. The Daily News will continue to lose its hard-hitting edge honed under the misguided, but passionate Wrong Kaye, whose blog will fade away once the filing period for city races ends next year. Southland Publishing will shut down L.A. CityBeat (my former employer) within six months and draft mystic-about town Jay Levin to launch a niche publication for Westsiders who chart their day by measuring electromagnetic pulses emanating from their right temples. Oh, and local TV broadcasts will become even more inane and unwatchable and will be ignored by all but Mayor V’s press conference schedulers.
If all of these do not come true by June 24, 2009, laugh it off. If any of them do, my condolences because the people of L.A. will have lost a valuable voice (though TV news is already in a steep decline, with the exception of the likes of Laurel Erickson and Conan Nolan).
As emcee Harry Shearer quipped Saturday night – and I mean this with all due respect – before a seemingly dim and largely unappreciative crowd at the Biltmore, at least we can be thankful that the L.A. Times circulation is still more than 100,000. Who knows for how long. Another massive round of layoffs awaits the newsroom this week. But as damaging as it is, a shrinking staff isn’t the major threat to the Times. Even if 3,000 more editors and writers were hired, unless the risk-averse mindset of the place is broken, and timid journalists stop cowering behind the hollow mantle of objectivity, we’ll never read the daily paper we deserve. Here are six steps that could help extinguish the flames of cowardice, hyper-caution and indecision enveloping the Times:
1.) Stop blowing placement of top local stories: One of the great benefits of reading the web edition of the L.A. Times is avoiding the bad decisions of overly cautious editors who bury the best stories in the print edition. Plus, stories often run longer online than the versions shoved deep inside the poorly designed bowels of the B-section. An example: a story that City Hall reporters David Zahniser and Phil Willon broke last Friday afternoon about the mayor’s travel junkets and fundraisers and an upcoming public corruption trial. The five paragraphs dealing with Bernard Klepach, the former LAX concessionaire who plays a role in the trial of former airport commissioner Leland Wong, got cut from the edition dropped on my driveway Saturday morning. Not that I would have noticed the story, entombed on Page B-7, unless it was for my habit of reconstructing The Times every morning, positioning the stories on pages A1 and B1 according to their importance and meaning for the city. L.A. Times editors should try it sometime. But first, they’ll need treatment for their Risk-Aversion Syndrome. It’s scary, but if they do it right, people might even be talking about the stories. The old Herald-Examiner would have bannered across Page One the story about the mayor’s $250,000 junket to Israel and fundraisers in Chicago, New York and Florida. But not Times’ editors who seem to be losing their battle against the Demons of Dull.
Sometimes, it seems timid editors use bad placement of investigative stories as a sort of symbolic apology for running them in the first place. An example: A 30-inch or so story that ran June 16 about the checkered past of DWP’s second in command, Mayor V’s pal Raman Raj. Only a sliver of David Zahniser’s hard-hitting story appeared on Page B1, with a dull, single-column headline that failed to convey the meat of the story: “Official at DWP says bias claims unfounded.” Huh? This hardly begins to hint at the political tricks that keep Raj in power. At a newspaper serious about local investigative work, the story would have received centerpiece treatment, meaning it would have been the dominant story with a photo on the page. Such uninspired treatment of major stories makes me wonder if Times’ editors flinch at the sight of their shadows. Do they sleep with the light on at night?
2.) Don’t let Steve Lopez have all the fun: The paper would improve overnight if editors allowed writers to show more of their personality and develop a voice. The future of journalism is not stenographic, newspaper of record prose, but writing about events, people and issues in a narrative style, with vivid details and deep reporting. Lopez told the press club that the Times is the most objective paper west of the Hudson, as though that should be its goal. Better that it helps set the agenda for change and holds politicians’ feet to the fire every day, in stories above the fold, on section covers. The goal should be pointing the way to the truth, not to some imaginary line of objectivity that satisfies sources at the expense of informing readers. Make readers angry. Show your own outrage. Just think how powerful the stories would be if Lopez took over the languishing environmental beat? Lopez would tear up the bad boys at the local smog agency – the South Coast Air Quality Management District – and help us toss out the stale framework of objective reporting in the face of pollution killing and sickening thousands of people every year. In his lively remarks Saturday, as he picked up a major award, Lopez made it clear that he’s as much of an untouchable at the Times as anyone. He told of his encounters with Sam Zell, and how he warned him not to “fuck with the paper.” Hey, if only everybody at the Times could get away with talking to Sam that way. They can’t. But every writer should be ordered to throw out their cautious, edgeless templates and write incisively like their top-notch columnist.
3.) Run stories when they’re still news: Editors knew about the gang allegations made against Jamiel Shaw Jr. long before they came out in court last week, but they sat on them until they were no longer news. I’ve been told that the L.A. Times knew many of the details that law-enforcement expert and freelance writer Annette Stark uncovered in early May in her investigation of the killing. But would the L.A. Times deem to share them with its readers? Nope. For months, the L.A. Times allowed the family’s story about Jamiel’s killing as a racial hate crime to sweep the city like a wildfire and fuel anti-immigrant tensions. Jamiel’s murder inspired calls for a crackdown on illegal immigrants, with the cause championed by fear-monger and mayoral candidate Walter Moore, who’s out to repeal Special Rule 40, which forbids police officers from initiating action based on someone’s immigration status. The Times didn’t run details about Jamiel’s alleged ties until authorities disclosed them in court, striking the absolutely safest path to informing its readers of details many of them had already learned weeks before from other sources.
In early May, I had a chance to run Stark’s piece in CityBeat before I was fired, but my boss passed on an early version of the story and Stark ended up taking it to the L.A. Weekly. It ran there several weeks after I had commissioned the piece. By then, details about Jamiel’s alleged gang ties had already made it to the blogosphere, talk radio and here at WitnessLA.
4.) Draw up a list of all stories killed so far in 2008: How many other stories were mishandled the way the Times blew the Jamiel Shaw Jr. story? No need for editors to confess publicly, though I wouldn’t mind seeing the list. Maybe a staff-wide internal discussion will help break the chain of institutional caution that keeps editors from running sensitive, important stories until they’re old news.
5.) Overcome your complacency about corruption: My former colleague at the L.A. Weekly, investigative writer Jeff Anderson, uncovered major stories of public corruption in the small cities southeast of downtown L.A. For the most part, he alone wrote about unlawful influences wielding their way at city halls in Cudahy, Bell Gardens and Maywood, with little interference from D.A. Steve Cooley. There is no reason in the world that the L.A. Times should not be pursuing these stories just as vigorously as Jeff. An occasional story may creep into the paper, but there appears to be no focused strategy for ongoing coverage of these troubled cities and investigations. A paper with a serious mission statement about covering local news should be embarrassed. But not the Times. There’s something about the L.A. Times culture that would allow editors to question a decision to cover the existence of life on Mars. You know, it just might be too upsetting to the status quo!
6.) Editors and Reporters Should Swap Roles: All of the editors should cover a beat for at least six months, starting with the editors at the top who have never reported local news at the paper. Maybe a first-hand view of the hijinks of democracy at a county supervisors’ meeting, or the shallow nature of the mayor’s responses at a news conference, will help to instill a sense of purpose now missing from the pages of the slumbering paper. Who knows, with enough exposure to the real world, editors might even become passionate about their stories. And reporters, filling in for their flat, rule-obsessed editors, will have a chance to jumpstart the improvements that might save the place.