Finessing the mess at the Times

On the first night of the 1992 Los Angeles riots I left the L.A. Times building to do some street reporting – and exited through a smashed plate glass window, broken by angry demonstrators who had hurled a newspaper box through the ground floor window.

As I leaped through the makeshift opening to the glass-littered sidewalk, I could see the burnt remnants of charred carpets in what had been an apparent attempt to torch the Times.

What a mess. What upheaval.

Well, the corporate mess at the present-day Los Angeles Times is by no means analogous to a civic unrest that took dozens of lives and caused billions of dollars in damages. But it isn’t lost on me that, when the Tribune Company figuratively tossed editor Dean Baquet from the building this week following the forced departure of publisher Jeffrey M. Johnson, those corporate moves left nothing but upheaval at the place where I once worked.

I make no claims of having close ties to the newspaper. I left the paper as one of the early buyout babies more than a decade ago and an ever-dwindling number of staffers remember my byline and my newsroom pod.

But I remain a faithful reader and an occasional supplicant seeking freelance assignments to tide me over until the writer’s harvest comes in. And I do that, yes, for the money but also because I admire the work of many people at the paper and value placing my journalism among them.

I have watched the recent turmoil from afar and refrained from joining the rush of media critics, media mavens and Wall Street analysts who have dissected the comings – mostly goings – of people at the paper and who have speculated about prospective billionaire buyers named Broad and Burkle. Even the Times itself is reporting on Eli Broad and Ron Burkle as if they were entries in a horse race with the paper waiting at the finish line as the derby prize.

I have been silent until now. Then I picked up the New York Times on my flight from Detroit and spied the business section story that wove the tale of how another deep pockets mogul, David Geffen, was eyeing the news company on First and Spring.

The second paragraph of the story jumped out at me. It noted that last September Leo Wolinsky, a managing editor at the L.A. Times, had been a guest at Geffen’s opulent home when the “delicate question” of a possible sale was broached, as that other Times so delicately put it, and the sale of some pricey artworks would help finance the deal.

Ironically, that same month I also had a brief meeting with Wolinsky on the USC campus after he had addressed incoming graduate students at the journalism school and reassured them about the future of the news business. As part of his talk he had brought along a video of a Florida newspaper’s podcasts, Web Site and Internet operations as one model for such a future.

Leo was kind enough to lend me the videotape. Now I find out that my old friend at the Times was meeting with David Geffen, which is a little like learning that Kissinger was engaged in secret diplomacy with China.

After reading the New York Times story, however, I am dreaming of bigger things: Wolinsky. Geffen. Merina. Maybe even a comeback at my old paper.

Unfortunately, I have yet to return the videotape that I borrowed so long ago. And the closest I ever came to what the New York Times described as Geffen’s “sprawling estate in the heart of Beverly Hills where De Koonings and Pollocks hang on the wall” was listening to a Geffen Records CD while driving through the fringes of Beverly Hills in a car painted by a guy in Lawndale.

If you see Leo Wolinsky please tell him the videotape will be on its way back to him very soon, wrapped in an updated resume.

If you see David Geffen, tell him that my calendar is open, my walls are yearning for artwork, and mi casa es su casa.

After all, one should never lose hope. Even if your circulation has plunged from a million readers to fewer than 800,000. Even if your editor has followed your publisher out the door. Even if the stranger sent from Chicago to clean up this Wild West mess comes not on a pale horse but on a sleek racing bike.

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