Ex-Times reporter's 'elegy for his dying paper'

Joe Mathews, who left the Los Angeles Times last year to write and be a New America Foundation fellow, says in the New Republic that reading the paper these days infuriates him. Not for what's in the paper, but for what isn't.

Three times in the past six months, I have called up and cancelled the paper (you get an operator in Manila--much of the old circulation department has been outsourced), only to reconsider a few days later and restart my subscription.

When I don't take the Times, I feel guilty. I worked there for eight years. I still contribute pieces regularly. It's my hometown paper. But then I get the paper, read it, and start the day angry. There's nothing in the paper that enrages me. The articles are professionally done. No, my rage is from what I don't see, all the stories that aren't there any longer.

This is the daily tragedy of all the layoffs and buyouts and departures at U. S. newspapers and magazines. You can count up the journalists who have left the profession and are out of work, but much of the carnage of the ongoing media industry can't be measured or seen: corruption undiscovered, events not witnessed, tips about problems that never reach anyone's ears because those ears have left the newsroom. With fewer watchdogs, you get less barking. How can we know what we'll never know?

What stories are we missing? I can answer that question only for myself, thinking of my life with my hometown paper.

Gone is the stuff my neighbors and relatives read, the straightforward news about their local communities, particularly in the suburban counties that ring Los Angeles, a county of ten million people and 88 cities. A decade ago, the Times fielded more than a dozen reporters in the some of the county's larger cities. Dozens more toiled in the big, growing areas that border L.A.--Ventura, Riverside, San Bernardino, Orange. Yes, those writers were young and green. Yes, they missed things, as inexperienced reporters do. But they were there. They watched council meetings and school board meetings and county supervisors meetings. They called the cops. They looked at court filings. The most ambitious dug deeply into problems of transportation and development.

But those places were among the first to face cuts, even before the Tribune Company took over the paper in 2000. Where dozens of reporters once worked, only small skeleton crews remain. There are fewer checks. Fewer meetings are witnessed. Fewer records are reviewed.

It's not just the small and the routine that have been lost. I think of my Times ending, in the Washington bureau last spring, which at the time had more than 30 reporters, including a dedicated investigative team, and a full cadre of reporters covering all the big issues (immigration, labor, economics, health, etc.). Now the policy reporters and investigators are nearly all gone. Only a dozen reporters remain, and the paper no longer has its own Washington bureau (there's a combined Washington office for all the Tribune newspapers). Among the departed are Times reporters who first reported the identity (and suicide) of the anthrax suspect, uncovered corruption in contracting in Iraq, discovered several ways in which relatives of members of Congress were profiting from their political connections, and broke the initial stories that led to the federal investigation and downfall of Senator Ted Stevens of Alaska.

I think of my Times middle years, when I commuted between L.A. and Sacramento to cover a movie-star governor. The Capitol bureau was so full it was hard to find an empty desk. I'd confer with the bureau chief, who constantly dispensed solid news tips and sniffed out corruption. (She'd personally ended the career of a state insurance commissioner who appeared to be on his way to bigger things.) I'd pick the brains of the reporter who covered California's criminally overcrowded prisons and the legislative reporter who would expose an Assembly speaker's habit of using campaign funds to live the high life. I'd spend hours reporting stories with my two colleagues on the Arnold beat. But it's four years later, and all those colleagues have taken buyouts or departed for other gigs. In fact, I can think of only a handful of reporters who have produced major investigative or narrative work in the Times in the past ten years and remain.

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