RJ Smith at Los Angeles magazine conducted interviews with all six living ex-editors of the Los Angeles Times, a group whose time in charge spans from 1971 to this year. They react to Sam Zell, fill in some details on the paper's turbulent recent history and reveal early efforts to embrace the Internet. Michael Parks, for instance, said he moved toward breaking all news on the web back in 1999 but the Tribune killed it. He also says the LAT should re-focus on Southern California and "not run and hunt with The New York Times and The Washington Post." Dean Baquet, however, calls it "unpatriotic" to dismantle Washington and foreign coverage, and confirms that the best journalists at the LAT are looking to leave due to Zell's "bullying" — Baquet would know, as resume-receiving Washington bureau chief for the New York Times.
There's a lot of advice, some pining for the good old days, and agreement that current publisher David Hiller is no Otis Chandler. The piece is in the May issue, and will be online any day now as part of a relaunch of the magazine's website. Some exclusive highlights, newest to oldest:
James O'Shea, 2006-08
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...
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 invest in resource-producing sections. That was the path forward....
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?'
Dean Baquet, 2005-06
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....
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....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.
John Carroll, 2000-05
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.
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.
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.
Michael Parks, 1997-2000
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.
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.
C. Shelby Coffey, 1989-97
Will Hearst, publisher of the San Francisco Examiner and a good friend of mine, invited me to come up for the cross-bay World Series in 1989....He gathered friends from Silicon Valley, including Scott McNealy from Sun Microsystems and this guy from Seattle by the name of Bill Gates...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.
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.
William F. Thomas, 1971-89
As for saying 'bleep you' to an employee, which Mr. Zell has apparently done: Heavens, Otis [Chandler] would never have done that. I can imagine him saying it to me afterward, but in private...
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...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.