As I left my hometown of Los Angeles in the rearview mirror, I had a few thoughts about how I’d done most everything to be satisfied as a true Angeleno: I’d gotten my fill of the landmarks while desperately trying to avoid tourist lairs. I’d made friends sitting in 405 traffic. I’d watched Pulp Fiction with Quentin Tarantino, walked a red carpet, and been accidentally photographed by a paparazzo who jumped out of a bush, clicking away, as I pulled out of the drive at the Four Seasons. (After which I went home to Long Beach, and he probably got canned.)
But I left behind something as I crossed the state line, and then another, pulling into tranquil St. George, Utah, on my first night. Back in La-La Land, the city of dreams, the newspaper industry was rapidly degenerating into a nightmare.
One might say it started with papers’ confusion about who they were going to be in terms of local or broader coverage. It got worse when L.A. papers got left behind in the trend of online news and independent journalism, an adaptation stymied by ineffectual management or resources. And once you lose the readers — and I met many Angelenos who felt there was no paper for them, just relentless agenda-pushing — it’s all south from there.
After I reached Denver, I caught up on the grim news: The latest round of cuts had begun at the Los Angeles Times, with staffers being called at home with the bad news or forced to take the unceremonious walk to the H.R. department. This round called for 150 axed from the newsroom, according to reports, with more allegedly planned for later in the year. Sites such as L.A. Observed and Tell Zell — a blog by an anonymous Times staffer that takes to task Sam Zell, the Chicago billionaire who bought and has proceeded to houseclean the Times — have spent days running tearjerking farewell notes and roll calls of dismissed employees.
My alma mater, the L.A. Daily News, had gone through its own purge earlier this year. The editor who had resisted the depth of the cuts, Ron Kaye, was gone a couple of weeks later. Those of us left behind began looking. Most of those filing notice were giving up their journalism careers in favor of public relations, teaching, even the police academy.
Tell Zell — whose author, InkStainedRetch, will only identify him or herself as a longtime journalist at the Times — urges Times staffers to fight back, to meet with Teamsters leaders, to take back their paper. “Because despite all the crap about MSM, the truth is that journalists care deeply about what they do. We wouldn’t be in this job if we didn’t. There’s no money in it, no real fame. Just the bright feeling that we are doing something good and useful. That words matter. That writing is a way of warring for better days. Maybe we don’t always get it right. But most of us, I promise, try damn hard.” Days ago, a three-story-tall “Zell Hell” banner was unfurled off the Times‘ parking garage. Another former reporter has started NottheLATimes.com, which spoofs everything from the paper’s fixation on celebrity news to Zell’s infamous support of gentleman’s clubs (“It’s un-American to not like p***y,” he told staffers at the paper’s Orange County plant soon after acquiring Tribune).
But while Zell is mercilessly wielding the cutback ax, the problems of L.A. newspapers began long before he and his choice quotes came to town. Long before, even, the economic downturn. There are so many regions of the vast Los Angeles metropolitan area that are so inadequately covered, or have seen coverage beefed up and then yanked at the whim of a bean counter. Blogs and independent media caught on because readers needed a reliable antidote to the elitism in their local pages, and needed to hear from writers who were able to take chances and pursue stories outside the box.
A paper that has spent so many years distancing itself from readers can’t expect to launch a Web site and just trounce the Internet powerhouses. Readers need to feel that online mainstream journalists are beholden to the truth, not the wizard behind the curtain. And the agenda-pushing that fostered such alienation circulation-wise is subject to even more scrutiny on the Net.
I’ve asked former colleagues what went wrong in L.A.’s newspaper industry, and few can peg it on one distinct cause. But perhaps it was voiced best the other night on the phone with one former co-worker, who even after leaving the paper was better versed on each day’s pages than most L.A. journalists: “The only reason I get the paper anymore,” this writer said with a note of sadness, “is for the coupons.”
For a journalist utterly fortunate enough to break away from L.A.’s morass, that statement is probably the saddest L.A. industry requiem of all.