LA Times manages to goof up the Oscars*

Edited and updated after publication.

Thumbnail image for latimes-sign-sideview.jpgIn advance of more moves anticipated Wednesday by Tribune Publishing, Politico's Ken Doctor has two good stories about new dramas inside the Los Angeles Times and its strange little parent company. The more disappointing disclosure is that the Times, which keeps saying it wants to "own" coverage of Hollywood though it probably never will, got six passes to attend the Oscars inside the Dolby Theatre on Sunday and wasted four of them on new Tribune Publishing Chairman Michael Ferro, CEO Justin Dearborn and their guests. All six passes were going to be squandered on star-struck corporate suits — the Times' invisible publisher Tim Ryan was going to use the last two tickets — until the reporters actually charged with covering the Oscars threw a fit and demanded they be allowed in instead.

An unusually blunt email from the film staff to Ryan and editor Davan Maharaj pointed out how embarrassing it would be if the Times was alone among big Hollywood outlets to not have any journalists inside working the Oscars room. By the way, this is not the total number of reporters covering the event; the passes just allow entry into the schmoozeathon that Academy Awards guests get to take part in, and that is a rich source of material for the reporters on hand.

Doctor quotes the email:

We on the film team were shocked to learn this week that the paper has not allocated a single one of its Oscar tickets to a reporter.

All of our competitors will have reporters both in the Dolby and at the Governors Ball. Here’s how they’re using their Oscar tickets:

Entertainment Weekly: 2 reporters, 2 editors

AP: 2 reporters

The New York Times: reporter plus 1

The Wall Street Journal: reporter plus 1

The Hollywood Reporter: 1 reporter, 1 editor

Variety: 1 reporter, 1 editor


Entertainment coverage is a bedrock of this paper’s identity. To fail to send a single reporter on a year when the Oscars are at the center of a cultural debate over diversity is not only embarrassing, it’s bad journalism. Would the LA Times ever cover a political convention or a sporting event this way?

The email apparently shamed Ryan and Maharaj into allowing two journalists to use the tickets. According to Doctor, "Maharaj...spent part of Monday putting out the fires sparked by the incident [and] didn’t respond to an email requesting comment; he had told staffers that he was concerned that news of the Oscar ticket flap would make its way into the press."

It's not the first time that top Times brass have swooped in to elbow the paper's journalists out of the way in order to mingle with the stars, and not the first time we've seen one of the Tribune types be a little overly impressed by Hollywood. Remember when David Hiller, the publisher sent out from Chicago for awhile, tried to order the paper to celebrate the Times buying a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame only to be informed that, hey rube, it's not a real honor.

The other weird thing about this is that the Times totally over-covered the Oscars for weeks — in the printed paper and especially on the website, where for more than 24 hours over the weekend various stories, photos and fluff coverage about the awards pushed all other news well down the page. Part of it was covering this year's hot button diversity controversy, which the Times did well, though one could argue they took a high-volume swarm approach overall there too. There was also plenty of speculation, gossip and essentially filler to keep the topic active on the website. The see-through Oscars Calendar front page seemed, in the end, a pointless exercise and not cool enough to be any harbinger of a future print newspaper feature.

You didn't see any other big serious news operation go all-in on the Oscars — yes, the Times is in Los Angeles, but the city — and the news of the world — doesn't stop for Hollywood. (TV ratings were down again.) Doctor makes the point that, inside the Oscars, good journalism was being talked up around the plaudits for "Spotlight" "while simultaneously, the L.A. Times’ own journalists had to fight their bosses to do their jobs." Not good.

* Update: The Times says officially, "Every year, we divide our tickets between the newsroom and the business side, as entertainment is both a huge area of coverage and advertising. This year was no different and the practice is in line with many media organizations.”

Doctor's other story says that Ferro, the new maximum leader of Tribune Publishing, may roll heads at the company as soon as today's earnings call with financial analysts. One serious line of speculation is that Maharaj, a career reporter and editor at the Times with no business experience, may emerge as editor and publisher of the Times (and the San Diego Union-Tribune) with Ryan leaving after just a few months in the publisher's seat. [Update: This happened.]

Such a move would certainly save expense, and one observer hopes will offer one benefit: “Davan does understand the Internet.” Further, it could, optimistically, signal the importance of content to the next stage of the business....

If Maharaj takes on Times publishing duties, he would likely by extension take on responsibility for the now-sister San Diego Union-Tribune. Further, if Tribune is successful at buying the Orange County Register and Riverside Press-Enterprise out of auction this month, he would become the business head of the biggest monopoly newspaper company in the country, serving an area of more than 20 million residents.

That would mean Tribune’s southern California newspapers – representing half of its revenues – would be run by someone without business-side experience. Maharaj would presumably report to new CEO Justin Dearborn, who, similarly, comes into the job with no media management experience.


Maharaj, who declined comment for this story, is a 26-year Times veteran....He has not been among the most popular Times editors, numerous newsroom sources confirm to me. Near-universally, those who know him use these two words in describing his best skill: “managing up.”

While given great credit for that ability — a critical skill given the continuous chaos of management above him — some of my sources complain that his “political skills” have fostered an atmosphere of “favoritism” and indecision, and account for the continuing lack of diversity on the newsroom’s masthead. Numerous colleagues agreed with the take of one close observer: “Davan is neither well-liked nor highly respected in the newsroom.”

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