The relationship between a newspaper and its hometown is hard to define. But it is very real, especially in this place of many hometowns with few institutions to hold them together. That’s why Jim Newton’s departure from the Los Angeles Times is such a serious loss for both the newspaper and the Los Angeles area.
Newton, who left to teach and edit a journal at UCLA, wrote a weekly column on the editorial pages about the politics, government and public policy of Los Angeles and the myriad communities that surround it. As editor at large, he brought his experience and knowledge to the paper’s editorial board. He is also co-author of “Worthy Fights,” the new book by Leon Panetta, former defense secretary and CIA chief.
In clear, strong language, Newton’s columns explained the ties that both bind and separate communities. This is what he wrote about the delivery of water to Los Angeles: “The system's brilliance is that a snowflake can fall in the Sierra, trickle down the western slope, drift through the Bay Delta and into the state water system and then travel hundreds of miles and over mountains to Southern California. The system's delicacy was on display this month when that melted snowflake burst through a broken water main on Sunset Boulevard and ended up in a flood at UCLA.”
He explained vast and too-often dysfunctional systems that serve all of Los Angeles County. In Newton’s columns we met foster parents Heather Whelan and Carrie Chung and learned of their troubles with Los Angeles County foster care. He wrote: “Over the past three years, I've spent a lot of time in the Los Angeles foster care system -- in courtrooms and waiting rooms, with children and lawyers, birth parents and foster parents. And while I can't say whether Whelan and Chung are the exception or the rule when it comes to how the county's Department of Children and Family Services relates to foster parents, I can say that there are persistent breakdowns in communication between social workers and foster parents -- and that kids are suffering as a result.”
He was able to write with such authority because he had covered it all as a reporter, ranging from the criminal courts and police to the well off and privileged in Brentwood. As a columnist, he continued this kind of reporting, traveling through the region to interview people, finding out about their hopes and fears, accomplishments and failings.
The Times covers local politics and government, often with
fine reporting. But there’s not enough of it. Cutbacks, layoffs and forced retirements have drastically cut the staff and sapped morale. Reporting is challenging enough but it’s really hard knowing that every week or month might be your last at the paper.
And the diminished staff doesn’t have enough veterans. Much of the work falls on inexperienced reporters who haven’t built a connection to the communities they cover. All of them are besieged with demands from editors to get something hot for the web site, to produce more “eyeballs”, aka readers.
Stories of local government and politics have a hard time winning a spot in this competitive and confused news market place. But can be done. All you need are reporters with skill, curiosity, and the ability to tell a story—and editors who stand behind them.
Newton was that kind of reporter, an example to young reporters who might be considering a career path that starts at city hall. When the bosses let him leave, it was a sign that they don’t consider city hall or other halls of government important or interesting. It also showed they don’t understand the Times’ role in bringing together this complex region and explaining it to the readers
The Times’ greatest publisher, Otis Chandler, knew this and it was foremost in his goals for news coverage. That concept was drilled from the top down to newcomers like me when I first arrived in 1970, trying to crack the secrecy of the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors. My editors made sure I knew I was doing important work.
Now the Times has a new publisher, Austin Beutner. He didn’t get off to a good start by losing a superstar local political columnist like Newton. Maybe he’ll learn from his mistake.
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Editor's note: Here's the full memo sent to the newsroom about Newton's departure from the LA Times, signed by Beutner and Nick Goldberg, editor of the editorial pages.
From: "Goldberg, Nick"
Date: October 6, 2014 at 3:41:11 PM PDT
Subject: Editorial Pages Update
After 25 years at The Times - his anniversary was last week -- Jim Newton is leaving to take a job at UCLA. Jim has been a journalist of the first rank, an immensely supportive co-worker, a great friend to many of us, and a role model as well. He’s a doggedly hard worker, an extraordinarily fast writer, a clear and incisive thinker and a stalwart Times partisan.
We all know his resume: He’s been a reporter, bureau chief and editor. He served as editorial page editor and, most recently, as the paper’s editor-at-large, writing a weekly column about Los Angeles politics. What’s truly amazing is that he not only racked up well over 2,000 bylines during his years at the paper, but also found time, in between, to write biographies of Earl Warren and Dwight Eisenhower. His third book, written with former Defense Secretary Leon Panetta, will be published this week.
Jim has moderated countless debates and made innumerable television and radio appearances. He’s taught journalism students and helped re-write our ethics code. He was part of The Times’ Pulitzer-winning coverage of the L.A. riots in 1992 and the earthquake of 1994.
His accomplishments are many, too long to list. But mostly, Jim’s been a warm and generous colleague. Congratulations to UCLA for snagging him, but he’ll be sorely missed here.
Austin and Nick