by RIP RENSE
Jan. 23, 2008
photo that Kevin Roderick posted at
LAObserved.com of the
constipated---er, consternated---staffers at the L.A. Times, and I fell on
the floor. Then I got up and looked at the photo again, and fell on the
floor again. Holding my sides, erupting with strange, unholy noises that my
wife eventually recognized as laughter. Maybe you heard me.
There they were---the
“grim faces” of Times
staffers reeling from the firing of yet another
editor-in-chief. What made the photo extra fun was the fact that everyone in
the shot knew they were being photographed. Looked like a promo still from a
new HBO series, “Newspaper.” Or a Metamucil ad.
Next I read a quote
from the previously fired Times editor, John Carroll--- that all the ongoing
instability at the LAT "makes people cautious and worried” and “cautious and
worried people don’t often produce the best journalism.”
You know, I’m just at a
loss for articulation here, so let me get this out of the way:
Oh, how those Times
staffers are suffering! They are “cautious and worried,” all right. You
would be, too, if you were in the slightest danger of losing your $1-2
million home in La Canada, or your downtown condo, your couple of BMWs or
SUVs, your Salvadorean maid for the kids, that face-lift you’ve been saving
for, your Jimmy Choos. . .
And horror of horrors,
private school for little Zoey and Ranger.
I’m not kidding,
folks. Veteran Times staffers reportedly make between $100,000 to
$150,000, and some of them turn out as many as two articles a month.
Sometimes a year(!) Life’s tough. One Times columnist is rumored to make
over two bills a year for two columns a week.
Oh yes, the paper has
recently recruited many ethnically correct younger reporters---er, I’m
sorry, staff writers---and undoubtedly is not paying them quite
enough to shop at Nordstrom, but young people are resilient, so I’m not too
concerned about them.
But oh, pobrecita
jornalistas! Imagine that you have to write and edit your stories in an
unstable work environment! Imagine that you must “worry.” Oh,
Let’s see. “Unstable.”
It’s true enough. In recent years, the paper was, among other things, bought
by the Chicago Tribune Company, which ran it with hamhanded and degrading
long-distance snootiness. There were staff cuts, reduction in the size of
the pages, type-face meddling, buy-outs, huge circulation drops---all the
things afflicting most newspapers today.
Then came the departures
of editors Dean Baquet and John Carroll, stemming from refusal to implement
ordered “downsizing,” and now the firing of editor-in-chief James E. O’Shea,
reportedly for proposing an increase (gasp) in the newsroom budget. O’Shea
apparently just couldn’t get with the trend of “dying newspapers.” Finally
we have the new owner, billionaire real estate tycoon Sam Zell, a
sexagenarian who likes to attend meetings in running suits and big gold
The thing is, none of
these things really have much, if any, direct impact on the day-to-day
business of covering the news. Got an assignment? You still do it, whether
there is an editor-in-chief or not. Whether there is a new owner or not. An
editor-in-chief at most daily papers is little more than a balding guy in a
suit who makes a speech or sends out a bloviating memo once in a while,
anyway. The Times could change editors every week without it necessarily
having any impact on the hands-on work that reporters and editors do to
produce the paper. Change editors? It’s mostly a corporate show.
And judging by the
expressions on the “grim faces” in the photo, it looks suspiciously like
some Times staffers are rather enjoying this show. Spring Street, the soap
opera. (Credit: the late Cathy Seipp.)
election poem '08
Let me arrogantly, insufferably take a second to explain a little about
“instability” in newspapers. Well, first of all, whoever came up with the
idea that they were stable? Seen “His
Girl Friday” recently? “The
Paper?” All the stories I’ve heard through the years from former
reporters at the old L.A. Examiner, Herald-Express, and (original, not
current) Daily News---even the Times, back in the 50’s---didn’t quite
suggest peaceandquiet. Hell, when the city editor at the Daily News
got bored on hot summer nights, he’d get out a BB-rifle and plink empty
booze bottles off the windowsills. Then there was the reporter at the L.A.
Mirror who, upon learning that the paper was going out of business,
registered his sentiments by urinating on the city editor’s (vacant) desk.
In full view of colleagues.
Yes, that sort of oh,
boisterous behavior, was a long time ago in newspapers far, far away. More
recently. . .
I worked at the Valley
News (now Daily News) from ’74 to ’79, a period when the old, extremely
weird and profitable throwaway shopper, the “Green Sheet,” was made over by
the Chicago Tribune company into a pretty good paper. We ate upheaval for
breakfast. I watched the old linotypes and pneumatic tubes give way to
off-set and computers. The city room was forever been ripped apart (pardon
the expression), rewired for computers, reconfigured for new editors,
rebuilt, repartitioned. The entire features department was added on as we
worked. You’d type stories surrounded by great hanging sheets of clear
plastic, inhaling plaster.
There was a rocky period of attempted
unionization, when a couple of the organizers were bought off with
promotions. . .Oh, and the place was full of, um, unusual “characters.” Two of them wound up in mental institutions. One
was hired after having spent time in a mental institution, another straight
out of prison after a long sentence for drug-dealing. The copy desk, a kind
of retirement village for old newshounds, ran with booze. One editor slept
at his post, hiding behind sunglasses, after sipping a bit too much rotgut
from his thermos. Another thought his legs were invisible, and that he flew
around at night in his “half-pound body.” The librarian nipped Old Fedcal
bourbon from a desk drawer, and threw copyboys out of her chambers with
threats to kick their asses. One night, a copy editor who objected to the
behavior of a reporter showed his disapproval by picking the reporter up and
depositing him head-first into a trash can. (The night slot man suggested
that the copy editor probably should find other ways to resolve such
disputes.) The managing editor was the closest thing to Captain Queeg I’ve
ever known, a complex guy with a real sadistic streak. Many were in a state
of near nervous breakdown whenever he was on duty.
We went through, I
think, three editors-in-chief in the span of one year. Queeg was demoted
to TV mag editor(!), of all things ignoble. The rest of the staff was
comprised of mostly alky copy editors, and mostly pothead reporters (many of
whom made the switch to alcohol in due course.) Some of the reporters worked
under the residual and ongoing effects of LSD. The city editor spoke with a
thick Turkish accent. And so on.
Yet we put out a good
paper, some days an excellent paper, and few ever gave less than their all.
(Well, except for one rotund city editor who essentially viewed his position as a
means of eating for free.) The feature section was solid, occasionally
snappy, rife with old-fashioned “human interest” pieces and interviews, and cityside was run by now-L.A.
District Attorney spokeswoman Sandi Gibbons, and
Rick Orlov, who is today regarded as the dean of city hall reporters.
Crack investigative reporter Arnie Friedman and journeyman Bob Ballenger
helped anchor news coverage. Even Dave
Lindorff, now one of the premiere investigative journalists and
columnists in the country, did a stint at the place. Our consumer fraud
column, “Open Line,” was the best in the biz. Which is to say. . .
Sorry, John Carroll, all
these worried people did top-notch work. And the more worried they
got, the better the work seemed to get.
Let us now turn to the
departed L.A. Herald-Examiner, in late ‘70’s and early 80’s, where the only
stability was instability. This was newsroom as chaos theory. When I was
first offered a job there, I looked around the place and turned it down.
Picture: rows of ancient metal desks with reporters shouting into phones,
shouting at editors, banging on old Royal and Olympia mechanical
typewriters, waiting in line to use the dozen-or-so computers available
(waiting in line to make deadlines!), smoking (cigarettes, cigars, pipes),
cursing, running to move cars so they didn’t get parking tickets. Bus diesel
blew in through opened windows, past Venetian blinds not changed since the
‘40’s or ‘50’s. I later came to my senses and took the job.
The Her-Ex at that
time was a Mardis Gras of union disputes, threatened strikes, city
editor reshuffling, section redesign, occasional physical confrontation, and
extremely hard work. Duly legendary editor-in-chief Jim Bellows stocked the
place with free-spirits, top-to-bottom. As I’m fond of saying, even the
assholes were talented. There were no weak personalities there. They would
not have lasted long. Top reporters’ salary: about five bills a week. Most
made four or less. Imported big-gun (highly paid) columnists worked right in
the newsroom with the mostly kid reporters.
I recall an editorial
clash being resolved, more or less, by a reporter shot-putting a
typewriter into a wall. Then there were the occasional sleepover parties,
when cots were rolled in during periods when strikes were feared, so
management could live on the premises if necessary. One city editor
regularly returned from lunch very hyped up and sniffling a lot. A columnist
came to work a few times in drag (he was writing a lot about transvestites
at the time.)
One horrid day in 1980,
we all arrived to find that our friend and colleague, Sarai Ribicoff,
had been murdered in a robbery. A couple of months later, the newsroom
drafted me to write a letter to Rolling Stone criticizing an article about
the murder for RS freelanced by a Her-Ex columnist. Being idealistic and
stupid (often the same thing), I wrote the letter, and was later attacked in
the newsroom by the columnist, who first tried to choke me to death over a
dictionary (poetic!), then pummeled me in the face, head, and neck until a
copyboy and city editor Larry Burrough pulled him off. 30! (Yes, I threw one
punch in retaliation, but, sad to say, it did no harm.) When the supervising
editor refused to come to my aid, I called the cops. They came to the
newsroom, did their interviews, and were given milk and cookies.
Then I went back to work.
There was a rumor that
a reporter fired a pistol in the office, but that was before my time.
(The late City Hall reporter Mike Qualls was said to have one strapped to
his calf.) There were very few
neckties at the Her-Ex, and decidedly not-couture apparel among the
ladies (fashion editors excepted.) Half the staff was in and out of Corky’s
Bar across the street all day and night, some of them puking in the gutter
before going back to meet a deadline. Irreverence, irony, sarcasm, and
Pepto-Bismol were exalted.
Small wonder that the
paper poked fun at The Times, calling it “The Whale” in its “Page Two”
column. Small wonder, also, that the Her-Ex beat the Times in several L.A.
Press Club competitions in those years, in total number of awards.
Point being: that place
felt like a newspaper. A roiling, percolating den of ideas and disputes,
with news-beats kind of spilling over into each other. We did a great job in
spite of---or because of---“instability.” Once again, John Carroll:
The more worried
everyone got, the better the work seemed to get.
At last we come to the
“unstable” Times, the most stable newspaper in L.A. history (thanks in part
to decades of hard-core right-wing Republican editorial policy.) During the
nearly ten years that I was a “regular contributor” at this joint (this
means I was used like a reporter, but denied health benefits, vacation,
etc.), I tried to do most of my work at home. I went to write at Spring
Street maybe a couple dozen times, but I sure found the atmosphere. .
.lacking. Where were the rocks and sand and rakes? The trickling pastoral
fountain? This was a Zen garden, not a newsroom. All the well-dressed ladies
and gentlemen sat in little carpeted cubicles quietly tap-tapping on their
keyboards. Conversation was muted, if there was any at all. As I would enter
the place, darting eyes would take me in. I later figured out that most of
the talking was texting. Creepy! The only percolating I ever encountered was
in the lavish Times cafeteria and “test kitchen," which I think are now
defunct. Of course, all of this was very conducive to articles that were
often hundreds of inches long, answered all salient questions in the last
few paragraphs, and made fine art out of burying ledes.
But take heart, new
owner Sam Zell! Not to worry, publisher David Hiller! Ex-L.A. Times
columnist-turned-radio-talk-show-host-turned-L.A. Times-staff writer
(phew!) Robin Abcarian (melo)dramatically revealed the shape of things to
come, in her own newspaper’s coverage of recent events:
“I think we’re all very
That can only mean. . .
Good journalism in the
BACK TO PAGE ONE