Two recent pieces of writing from the bowels of the Los Angeles Times tell much about the state of the newspaper and Los Angeles journalism.
One was a terrific Times story on the crisis in LA Country's health care system. The other was memo from Times editor Russ Stanton on an editors' "retreat" at a site near the beach and far from those dependent on county health care.
First, the health care story by Garrett Therolf, Mary Engel and Jean-Paul Renaud, which was prompted by the resignation of yet another county health director. The story went much farther than that, examining the impact of the failing system and, in particular, what has happened since Martin Luther Jr. hospital in South Los Angeles closed.
I can just hear Times owner Sam Zell screaming, "Why in the - - - - - - -hell do you need three - - - - - - - reporters to write a story about one - - - - - - - hospital." Sam, a noted authority on newspaper staffing and erectile dysfunction drugs such as Viagra, had previously questioned why six or nine reporters are needed to cover the Iraq war.
The fact is that it takes three excellent reporters to dig into the subject and explain the impact on those Los Angeles residents who do not dine at the hottest Westside restaurants. The story examined the odd plan to reopen King, having it operated by a small Long Beach hospital with ties to Los Angeles County Supervisor Don Knabe. The impact of King's closing has been devastating:
"Based on a variety of health indicators, the South Los Angeles area remains among the most disadvantaged communities in the nation. More people die of lung cancer, stroke, diabetes and heart disease there than in any other place in Los Angeles County."
The Stanton memo on the editors' retreat was also enlightening in that, unlike the story by Therolf, Engel and Renaud, it was so vague. Like all "retreat" documents, it was heavy on "values."
He defined the values:
"--What we want to keep (our ambition, integrity, critical thinking)"
Aren't you supposed to do that in any job?
"--What we want to eliminate (dwelling in the past, arrogance, silo mentality)"
No more dwelling in the past? History is bunk. No more boring anecdotes from veterans about the '92 riot, pre-Villaraigoa mayors, Valley secession, long-term poverty. In fact, no more veterans.
"--And what we'd like to create (greater focus on, and interaction with, readers; a more entrepreneurial environment, increased operational flexibility)."
Stanton is right there, and he is correct on one of the solutions, which will mean more hard work and stress in the newsroom:
" We will train all editorial employees in new skills in every medium in which we work (print/web/TV/mobile/radio); launch two or three coverage teams focused on a specific topic (for example, and only for example, immigration or health care)…"
But what Stanton didn't address was the cutback in the staffs of the Times and the Singleton papers in the San Fernando Valley, Long Beach, Torrance and the San Gabriel Valley. You can hold retreats and greet each calamitous cutback with positive clichés. But as Sue Cross, senior vice president of global new media at the Associated Press, told the USC Annenberg Online Journalism Review:
"You can go read about news issues in more sources than ever before… but what are being lost are some crucial things. One is in investigative and watchdog journalism. …The second area that I think is being lost is consistent day-in, day-out institutional coverage. City government. County government. State government; You are seeing beats combined as newsroom resources are cut down. You also are seeing people are going in with less expertise. Seasoned beat reporters are, in many cases, leaving the industry.”
Such reporters are as important as county supervisors or council members or mayors. That's why cutbacks at the Times and Singleton papers are a civic disaster.