Letter From Los Angeles

The Best of Times, the Worst of Times

L.A. Times daily circulation has fallen below 800,000, and its editorial staff has gone from 1,200 to 940.
L.A. Times daily circulation has fallen below 800,000, and its editorial staff has gone from 1,200 to 940. (By Nick Ut -- Associated Press)
By John Pomfret
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, December 1, 2006

If there was ever a "there there" in Los Angeles, it could be found at the Los Angeles Times. In a region whose hallmarks are traffic snarls, sunshine, the Lakers and taco trucks, the paper has been an adhesive binding this crazy jangle of centrifugal energy into something bigger -- the future, perhaps, the first totally modern city.

But now the Times has slipped into a centrifuge of its own. In the space of two months, its publisher and beloved editor were fired because they refused to submit to further budget cuts demanded by the corporate parent, Chicago-based Tribune Co. Times journalists are eyeing the exits.

On one hand, the struggles at the Times constitute a typically depressing newspaper story of plummeting circulation and shrinking revenues as the Internet and other news sources have swiped readers from the "dead tree" media. In 1990, the Times had a daily circulation of 1.2 million. Now it's below 800,000. Tribune ordered cuts, and the editorial staff fell from 1,200 to 940. Editors John Carroll and then Dean Baquet, and Publisher Jeffrey M. Johnson, opposed more cutbacks. The result: They left the paper.

But the Times' travails also tell a broader story about Los Angeles, its perpetual we-try-harder competition with New York and the challenges of serving the second-biggest city in the United States, a place that encompasses the glitz of Hollywood, a heaven for entrepreneurial immigrants, the nation's biggest port and the most ethnically diverse and oftentimes most racially divided communities in America.

Founded in the late 19th century, the Los Angeles Times helped create Los Angeles. Kevin Starr, a professor of history at the University of Southern California, credits the paper's first great editor, Harrison Gray Otis, with bare-knuckle political manipulation to keep unions out and bring water into the parched region. Otis was a civic booster par excellence and wielded the Times to promote L.A.'s growth. The former Union Army lieutenant colonel was "the single most important force in Los Angeles aside from government itself," wrote historian Andrew Rolle.

"In these days, what the L.A. Times did would represent a conflict of interest," Starr mused. "But that was then. The paper was one of the founding institutions of the region."

In the 1940s and '50s, under the leadership of the Chandler family, the paper boomed. From the mid-1940s, Dorothy Chandler, the wife of Times Publisher Norman Chandler, devoted herself to civic affairs and led the effort to build the Los Angeles Music Center.

Dorothy Chandler's civic work underscored the fact that the paper was not just a news source but an anchor of civil society. L.A. was, in Starr's words, "institutionally challenged." Whereas other cities such as New York and Boston had foundations and old money, L.A. was known for Tinseltown tycoons and brash new cash. Other cities had vast parks. L.A. has private gardens.

Until a few years ago, with the construction of Frank Gehry's Disney Concert Hall and José Rafael Moneo's Cathedral of Our Lady of the Angels, L.A. was the only great city in the world that did not have a single public building of note; rather, it boasted the world's largest stock of stunning domestic architecture. L.A.'s downtown lost its last Fortune 500 company headquarters in 2000. As such, the L.A. Times became, for better or worse, the region's unifying force, a place where, according to the paper's media writer, Tim Rutten, "ideas and agendas meet."

But the L.A. that the Times helped make was, and is, a tough place to serve. The paper's circulation area spans a territory the size of Ohio, over five counties and 88 cities and through a veritable United Nations of neighborhoods -- Iranians next to Koreans near Armenians close to Thais across the county from Vietnamese abutting African Americans near Jews surrounded by Hispanics of all nationalities and political stripes.

In an interview after he was fired, Baquet called L.A. the "trickiest place" he had ever covered. He said the mission of East Coast papers such as The Washington Post and the New York Times was easier in a way. "The Post has to dominate the coverage of government," he said. But for the L.A. Times, he said, "while it's clear that we have to do a great job covering entertainment, there's no clear story that's of equal importance" to the paper.

The Times tried a variety of strategies to deal with the region. In the 1980s, it split its metropolitan section into numerous editions meant to serve smaller communities but ended those a decade later. In the 1990s, it started the Latino Project, a group of mainly Hispanic reporters and editors tasked with coming up with stories about the Latino community, which now encompasses almost half of the region's population. The Times poured millions into foreign news, because more than 40 percent of L.A.'s population is foreign-born.

The challenge of covering L.A. was heightened to some extent because Otis Chandler, the paper's publisher from 1960 to 1980, had national ambitions for the paper. He reinvented the Times, taking much of his inspiration from the New York Times. His Times had a great foreign staff and a substantial operation in Washington. It even published an edition in Washington to give the paper national heft.

That desire to compete with New York continued after Chandler passed the reins to other publishers and the paper was sold in 2000 to Tribune Co.

But modeling the operation on the New York Times and poaching many of its senior editors, including Baquet, had its pitfalls. It contributed to a sense that the paper lacked its own singular mission. "The opinion section was an example of other problems in the paper. It became more like all the other opinion organs around the country," said Kevin Roderick, who maintains the popular blog LAObserved, "when what they should have done was to own the story in Southern California."

Many of the paper's senior editors were from out of town and lived in tony Pasadena, isolated from whatever hustle and bustle can be found in L.A. (Baquet, an exception, lives in Santa Monica.) "They hired a lot of great people from New York and other places, but they just don't get L.A.," said David Abel, an entrepreneur and one of L.A.'s leading social activists. "They don't feel the pulse. They were all looking for one center of power, when L.A. is polycentric."

Further complicating matters, Tribune Co. is widely expected to split up sometime next year. Civic groups have seized on local ownership as a panacea for the paper's ills.

In September, an ad hoc organization of leading business executives, labor leaders and lawyers, including former secretary of state Warren Christopher, sent a letter to the Tribune Co. protesting further cuts and intimating that finding a homegrown owner would be better. "This is not simply a matter between the L.A. Times and Tribune, nor simply a matter between Tribune and Wall Street," said George Kieffer, an attorney and a member of the group, the Civic Alliance. "The public is a stakeholder. After all, a newspaper is different from a widget company."

Three men have emerged as potential buyers. Interestingly, they have had, at the very least, a contentious history with the paper. There's Eli Broad, who as the part-owner of a home-building firm helped create the sprawling phenomenon that is present-day L.A. The Times routinely maddens Broad by referring to him as "the billionaire philanthropist"; Broad wants it to lose "billionaire."

There's also David Geffen, the entertainment mogul and a man who fought the paper for years over his refusal to allow beach access through a property he owns on the Pacific Ocean. And there's supermarket magnate Ron Burkle, a friend of Bill Clinton's who was angered when the Times referred to his failed attempt to get a law passed sealing the divorce records of well-heeled celebrities as "Burkle's law."

Upon taking the helm last month, the Times' new publisher, David Hiller, asked the staff for ideas about the paper's future. Hiller said he was committed to helping the Times rediscover its local roots. But the claim was met with skepticism because everyone knows more cuts are coming.

In his opening remarks Nov. 13, the new editor, Jim O'Shea, the former managing editor of the Chicago Tribune, told staffers that he didn't know how long he'd be in the position and that his family had not joined him in Los Angeles, according to a video of the address made available on the Times Web site.

"You all know . . . sometime after the first of the year we are probably going to have new owners," O'Shea said. "And that could be a lot better for everybody here. But don't kid yourself, it could also be worse -- a lot worse."

Rutten said O'Shea's comments were telling. "I don't think anyone could have ever imagined that we would have someone here as editor whose . . . family is not going to be here and who says he himself doesn't know how long he's going to be around," Rutten said. "It's a tribute to my colleagues that they go on functioning at the level that they do."

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