2008: Signs of the (L.A.) Times


Everyone in power at the Los Angeles Times vowed that 2008 would be the year the paper stopped making news for the wrong reasons — remember how unbelievable 2007 seemed? — and rebuilt its reputation as a top-tier U.S. newspaper. Then Sam Zell came along, followed by yet another change in publisher and editor, the greatest shedding of talent in the paper's history, and more national attention for reasons other than good journalism: one of the most embarrassing retractions ever, the killing of Book Review, Opinion, Real Estate and the Los Angeles Times Poll, waves of emotional farewells, worst in the nation circulation losses, questionable online news decisions, a courtroom accusation that the Times collaborated with Anthony Pellicano, a big Guantanamo correction, and trading away of the Washington Bureau that was a foundation of the Times' national reputation. Plus more.

I think quotes and links tell the story of 2008 best, to go with the photo above of shell-shocked staffers from the day Jim O'Shea became their third recent editor-in-chief to go after refusing to decimate the newsroom.

Sam the sham and the yes men
"Everyone likes pussy. It's un-American not to like pussy."
Sam Zell, visiting the Times Orange County plant.

Sam Zell"Fuck you."
Zell to an employee who asked about news standards.

"My goal was to shock you, to shake you out of complacency."
Zell to employees.

"In the newspaper, it just says Times Staff Reporter. I really never thought about it, that there was really a person over there going through hell to get this."
Tribune innovation guru Lee Abrams, on not knowing the Baghdad dateline means reporters are there. Times bylines now say Reporting from Baghdad.

"It's not good judgment to use profane or hostile language...looking at pornography on the job, unless in pursuit of a story, also is not good judgment....In short, nothing changes; the fundamental rules of decorum and decency apply."
LAT memo to staff, backtracking on Zell's comments.

"Sam Zell likes to say his role is to throw bombs and shake people up. He's a man of his word."
Washington bureau chief Doyle McManus, on Zell's 'psychic bloodbath' visit to the bureau.

"Sam Zell's illegal and irresponsible actions and public statements have damaged the reputation and business of the company he purports to want to preserve."
News release by former LAT stars who sued Tribune.

"Somehow it all mixes up and...gets clarified in my head."
Zell on reading six magazines, three newspapers and his Bloomberg terminal.

"I've said loud and clear that I am returning control of our businesses to the people who run them. That means David Hiller has my full support."
Zell in January, backing the LAT publisher.

Transitions
"Many employees dismiss Mr. Hiller, 53, as a star-struck outsider, a meddler in the newsroom who does not understand journalism or Los Angeles."
New York Times in February.

David Hiller"I'm hoping the Dodgers or the Angels are going to invite me to sing the national anthem this year."
Hiller in NYT story. He sang at Dodger Stadium in June.

"I want to let you know that David Hiller has decided to step down as publisher of The Los Angeles Times, effective immediately."
Tribune COO Randy Michaels in July.

"When I told my mother that Sam wanted to see me this morning, she said 'do you think he wants to make you CEO of the whole company?'"
Hiller's exit note.

"As an avid reader of The Times for more than 45 years, I never dreamed that I would awake one morning to find my name at the top of the masthead."
New publisher Eddy Hartenstein's note to newsroom.

"I disagree completely with the way that this company allocates resources to its newsrooms...[it] relies too heavily on voodoo economics and not enough on the creativity and resourcefulness of journalists."
Editor Jim O'Shea, after being ousted in January.

"Given what I'd walked into, just settling the place down was an achievement."
O'Shea in Los Angeles Magazine.

"Is there a divide? Absolutely."
Editorial page editor Jim Newton, on newsroom split over who should become editor. Newton later left the paper, then returned.

"Stanton will lead a newsroom chafing from the exit of its third editor in less than three years and worried about staff cuts."
LAT story on promotion of Russ Stanton to editor.

"One of the keys to reversing our fortunes is improving our coverage of Southern California."
Stanton email to the newsroom.

"A new editor and others were hired, future issues were planned, and mock-up covers were made -- all without the knowledge of anyone in the newsroom, including the top editor, Russ Stanton."
New York Times, on plans to reinvent the L.A. Times Magazine outside of editorial control.

Reactions
"When historians get around to 2008, it's likely they will say it was the year the Los Angeles Times died."
Kit Rachlis, editor of Los Angeles Magazine.

"As former editors of the Los Angeles Times Book Review, we are dismayed and troubled at the decision by Sam Zell and his managers to cease publishing the paper's Sunday Book Review."
Open letter from Digby Diehl, Sonja Bolle, Jack Miles and Steve Wasserman.

Baquet in newsroom"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." — Dean Baquet..."Maybe [Zell] will figure out how to preserve journalism as well as his capital. I wouldn't bet on it, though." — John Carroll..."The Los Angeles Times should not run and hunt with The New York Times and The Washington Post....It needs to be reported, written, and edited for the people of Southern California." — Michael Parks...Former LAT editors in Los Angeles Magazine.

"Newspapers like the Los Angeles Times and Chicago Tribune are being ruthlessly cannibalized by corporate trolls like Sam Zell, turned into empty husks that focus increasingly on boutique journalism."
Chris Hedges, columnist for Truthdig.com.

"The slide of the Times is like watching a druggie's descent into hell...It's absolutely unbelievable."
L.A. blogger Jon Weisman.

"The most troubled big newspaper in U.S."
Rafat Ali, PaidContent.org.

"The once mighty Times has managed to give almost everyone in Los Angeles a reason to hate it, as it cycled through editors and publishers and one staff reduction after another."
Law professor Susan Estrich, nonetheless urging support for the Times.

"It's a continuing cause for concern."
Los Angeles civic leader George Kieffer, regarding Times quality after O'Shea is fired.

"It's not that using Borscht Belt humor and boob jokes to communicate with the public is indecorous...A giant conglomerate full of professional writers and producers, and the best you can come up with is material Henny Youngman cut from his bar mitzvah speech?"
Jeff Bercovici in Portfolio, on Tribune adopting a jokey corporate news release style.

"To put it another way, if you use many, many, many words to make whatever point you may be trying to make or fact you are attempting to report, you will be considered more productive than another writer who takes pains to be concise -- that is, to use fewer words rather than more words."
Former opinion editor Michael Kinsley, parodying Tribune's call to evaluate reporters based on word count.

Farewells
"I'd come to believe that the Los Angeles Times, while still stacked with talent, is in decline, and that it's time to go."
Investigative editor Joel Sappell

"My heart is utterly broken right now, no point in pretending. I love newspapers, including this one, way too much not to be appalled by what is going on. For the record, I object."
Reporter Janet Wilson.

Note in LAT building"I simply lost hope. The Times is in disarray, and I no longer believe it can pursue its mission and serve its readers well."
— Environment specialist Marla Cone.

"Sadly, I raised my hand to be laid off....I couldn't wait to come to work each day, and I was always proud to tell people what I did for a living."
Reporter William Lobdell.

"It has been a real privilege to work alongside you these past seven years."
Pulitzer winner Charles Ornstein, who left for ProPublica.

"I have been very lucky to work at the Los Angeles Times for three decades with a fabulous group of reporters, photographers, editors, researchers and skilled technicians."
Legal affairs reporter Henry Weinstein.

"You're the toughest staff employed by any publication anywhere. If there's any justice in this business, things will get better."
Reporter Joe Mathews.

"Why not follow the example of every ten year old who's ever run a lemonade stand, and stop trashing the product."
Reporter Myron Levin, addressing Zell in note.

Signs of the Times
"The Times appears to have been hoaxed by an imprisoned con man and accomplished document forger, an audacious swindler who has created a fantasy world in which he managed hip-hop luminaries, conducted business with Combs, Shakur, Busta Rhymes, and The Notorious B.I.G., and even served as Combs's trusted emissary."
The Smoking Gun.

"An article and related materials published on the Los Angeles Times website on March 17 have been removed from the site because they relied heavily on information that The Times no longer believes to be credible."
Full retraction published in LAT on April 7.

"I now believe the truth here is that I got duped."
Reporter Chuck Philips, apologizing to readers.

"Mr. Pellicano...The day you were arrested, that's when the cover-up began at my newspaper."
Former reporter Anita Busch, in her victim statement in federal court.

Jill Leovy"The relentless demands of this beat have at times exceeded the abilities of this reporter... Apologies to loved ones of those victims whose names were omitted."
Reporter Jill Leovy, regretful that her Homicide Report blog didn't quite include everybody.

"Harriet Ryan joins the Times today as the first member of what will become a team covering one of our region's principal industries -- the manufacture and exploitation of fame and celebrity."
Staff memo on hiring of celebrity justice reporter.

"We're looking forward to Mike's byline appearing in the paper and on the website with increased frequency."
Sports Editor Randy Harvey, on the return of Mike Penner 18 months after he began writing as Christine Daniels.

"Don't let readers suspect you heard it on the freaking radio."
Harvey memo telling sports reporters to identify their sources.

"It is virtually worthless as a piece of real estate."
Downtown real estate mogul Tom Gilmore, on Zell's plans to sell the Times building.

"I'm looking forward to the new Sit-N-Sleep Times Building. You're killing me, Sammy!"
LAO reader Mark L. Hammond.

"But I shouldn't be talking about my bosses like that."
Columnist Steve Lopez, zinging Zell and Abrams at Press Club awards.


More by Kevin Roderick:
Tribune to exit bankruptcy today after four years, ending Sam Zell era *
Army Corps clears Valley wildlife area used for sex
Mayor V parties with Charlie Sheen in Baja?
When Jonathan Gold chose food over the Foreign Service
Plumber saves girl from jumping off freeway bridge
Recent 2008 in review stories on LA Observed:
2008 quotes: Top of the news
2008 quotes: Only in L.A.
2008 quotes: Politics
2008 quotes: Media
2008 quotes: Transitions

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