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June 30, 2004

        I have many regrets in life. High on the list is not punching out a veterinarian who refused to treat my dying cat because all I had no credit card I.D. for my check. Also high up is naming the Daily News of Los Angeles.
        That's correct, I named the paper. Well, at least I think I did.
        Back around 1976 or so, I walked into new publisher J. Scott Schmidt's office in the old Valley News offices on Sylvan Street in Van Nuys. Why not? Schmidt had grandly announced an open-door policy, and I was a young reporter nave enough to believe it. The man had recently been imported by the new owner, the Chicago Tribune company, to turn the former throwaway into a credible daily, and I had an idea. . .
       "Mr. Schmidt," I said, "I have a presumptuous suggestion. I understand the Tribune Company wants the Valley News to compete with the L.A. Times. If so, and you are thinking about a name change, I have one in mind."
         "Go ahead," said Schmidt, lighting his pipe.
        "Well, long ago, there was a great newspaper in L.A. called the Daily News. It was an oversized tabloid, peach-colored, free-spirited, and very much a populist enterprise. It was spunky, irreverent, a champion of the working man, and much loved, yet is largely forgotten now. I hear that the Times might own the Daily News name, seeing as the paper was absorbed by the Times' afternoon paper, The Mirror. But if not, and you really want to go citywide, maybe you'd want to rename this place the Daily News."
        Schmidt's eyes were keen with interest. I won't swear to it, but my frayed synapses tell me "that's a good idea" made its way into my ears. I recall being shocked that he was so receptive.
The only way you can tell the DN features department from news is---well, you can't. Just rows of desks pickled in perpetually 70-degree air conditioning, cast in mausoleum lighting.

        It wasn't until January of 1981 that the name changed. Schmidt apparently did an end-run around "Los Angeles Daily News" by calling the joint "The Daily News of Los Angeles." What, if any, deal was worked out with the Times, I have no idea.
        Of course, J. Scott might have been humoring me, and planning the change all along. I'll never know, because this fine, principled publisher and honorable man passed away a few months ago at 66.
        But if I did name the joint, I'm really, really sorry.
        The Daily News of Los Angeles has as much in common with the original Los Angeles Daily News as Rhode Island has with the Colossus of Rhodes, as ice cream has with Ice T., as New Mexico has with the old one.
        The modern DN is an ugly, dreary, perpetual disappointment---the L.A. Clippers of L.A. journalism. Here was a chance to give the city a punchy, gutsy second paper, and instead we get a garish, unimaginatively edited, demographically calculated, dull, dull, dull shopper. An eyesore.
        I mean, that multi-color front page looks more like junk mail than a newspaper---right down to the cheap newsprint and the ad on page one(!). Putting "NEWS LITE" at the top of page two---with a half-page ad at the bottom---really tells the whole story here. All the eye-candy and ad revenue that's fit to print.
        Then there are the daily 72-point bold headlines! Dear Daily News editor, here's a tip: you put something important and pressing in 72-point bold, not "ARNOLD'S BUDGET GAMBLE." That sounds like a title in the "young person's literature" section of Borders. "HOLLYWOOD'S HITLESS YEAR"? Um, were we supposed to worry that major movie studios aren't making enough money---instead of, say, the 900 soldiers dead in Iraq? And "GRIDLOCK!", which roared across the page one Sunday, is every bit as newsworthy as "SMOG!" or "TALL BUILDINGS!" Mr. Editor, these headlines make you the newspaper-that-cried-wolf. Who will take you seriously on the day you print "9.0 QUAKE WIPES OUT VALLEY"?
         Of course, there is a tradition of goofy headlines in the paper's history. Back in the days of the Valley News and Green Sheet, city editor Laurence G. "Oh Jesus Christ!" Fowler was infamous for imposing weird, archaic hed style. Here's a favorite banner that still resides in my memory banks, "SUPERVISORS WHACK AT BUDGET (AND IT GROWS!)"
        Congratulations, Daily News---you have matched the weirdness of the old Green Sheet, if not the uh, creativity.
        The modern Daily News of Los Angeles is really no more "of Los Angeles" than efficient light-rail transit. Better to call it the "Daily News of Los Angeles Newsracks," many of which still appear full at day's end. The name change of long ago has proven the least effective since Prince switched to a mutant asterisk. L.A.? This is We Cover the Valleyfront---padded with wire copy.
        Well, maybe part of the problem is the newsroom atmosphere, or lack of same, as I wrote a few months back of the San Francisco Chronicle. This is an insurance agency, not a city room. The only way you can tell the DN features department from news is---well, you can't. Just rows of desks pickled in perpetually 70-degree air conditioning, cast in mausoleum lighting. You could die in your chair, and somebody would definitely notice in a day or two. Like Disneyland's Haunted Mansion, this room has no windows.
One bloodied veteran of the features department actually kept a journal of the paper's plunge into nonexistent morale.
        I dropped by a few years back to visit old friends and witnessed a scene more out of the funny page than "Front Page." A city editor loomed at the front of the office, with a trenchcoat---a trenchcoat---draped around his shoulders, and a pair of sunglasses more opaque than Mayor Hahn's thought processes, pacing back and forth as young reporters sheepishly stepped forward to show him their stories. This Mad Magazine "Spy Vs. Spy" scene scared me, and I didn't even work there.
        I do feel guilty, though, knocking my alma mater. It's like kicking a three-legged dog for limping. The fault is with management, not the yeomen and yeowomen who fill the pages. Yes, there are excellent reporters, like Sacramento correspondent Harrison Sheppard. Yes, there is L.A. City Hall institution Rick Orlov, who is as crackerjack as they come. Yes, there is the ever affable, durable columnist Dennis McCarthy, whose work is duly popular. There isn't an editor in L.A. as redoubtable as Richard Quist. Great herds of underpaid, overworked, diligent reporters come and go in the windowless Daily News cage, occasionally breaking good stories.
        But that's the trouble really---it's been this way too long: good raw material, bad leadership.
        In the five years I spent there, from 1974-'79, the paper transformed from a four-day-a-week shopper into a more-than-decent daily. There were truly great journeyman reporters, from Bob Ballenger to Arnie Friedman, and the Open Line consumer action column, headed by Bernard Beck, went after corruption and incompetency even when it meant---get this---major loss of advertising! (Schmidt backed them up, too!) There was some dandy feature writing, blue-ribbon music criticism (Richard S. Ginell), savvy, user-friendly fashion pages (Debra Zahn, now Gendel), an engrossing religion page founded by Ira Rifkin (now recognized as one of America's leading authorities on world faiths) and so on. This Van Nuys institution was part of the pulse of the Valley, just walking distance from city, county, and federal government buildings.
        Then it was as gone as, well, yesterday's paper. First the Chicago Tribune bailed, then Jack Kent Cooke bought the joint  in 1985 for God-knows-why. Whatever steam accumulated under Schmidt quickly dissipated, and Van Nuys was abandoned for a faceless corporate office building in Woodland Hills (Cooke had pronounced the lively Van Nuys office a "rabbit warren.") Suddenly, the Daily News had no more panache than a Sunday in Reseda.
        A former staff writer who preferred to remain anonymous summed up the grim years that ensued:
       "I basically agree with your assessment that the paper's glory years were at the end of the '70s and through the early '80s. The sale of the paper to Jack Kent Cooke and arrival of Tim Kelly and Bob Burdick as editors became a double-edged sword. Kelly and Burdick were bright and seemingly knew what they were doing but made some moves, especially with the personnel they brought in, that contributed mightily to a downfall in morale. The morale plunge was most notable when Doug Dowie emerged as city editor. He was a menace in the newsroom, an obvious hatchet man for the top brass, more proficient in his way at terrorizing the troops than (Laurence G.) Fowler ever could muster. I suspect the moral morass sapped a lot of the energy we had for breaking stories and turning out well written features."
        One bloodied veteran of the features department (also speaking on condition of anonymity) actually kept a journal of the paper's plunge:
       "It was Tim Kelly who proclaimed 'We're going back to the Valley!' probably around 1983, and the decline started from there," he said. "The slide really got going in my department when Jane Amari took over the features section at the beginning of 1984. She immediately waded in and fired Debbie Goffa, who was running an increasingly distinguished Sunday magazine, Morgan Gendel and (longtime features editor) David Dickman immediately jumped ship. Amari got rid of Rick Talcove, a superb, acerbic theater critic, that summer. Freelance reviewing was eliminated in 1986 because they lost a lawsuit brought by Salli Stevenson, the de-facto staff dance critic who was denied benefits because she was a freelancer on the books. Amari stayed for nine years, demoralizing everyone with her mediocre news judgment and authoritarian manner. By the time I left, the annual turnover in the newsroom was a whopping 50%, which I kept track of in a morbid chronicle that will make a great black humor novel someday."
        Enter Dean Singleton, a notorious bottom-line artist and a kind of K-Mart version of Rupert Murdoch, and morale was as buried as a New Journalism lede. Singleton's Media News crowned its conquest of the L.A. suburban newspaper market with the Daily News purchase in 1998, and now owns and operates (read: has corporatized and leeched the individuality out of) eight Southern California dailies. All you really need to know about Singleton is that after buying the Long Beach Independent Press-Telegram in 1997, he reportedly set up an office across the street, and interviewed staff members about anything: sports, the weather, whatever. As one IPT reporter told me at the time, "he was trying to figure out who might be a troublemaker."
        One longtime Daily News "troublemaker" who apparently eluded Singleton's screening process, and remains at the paper today, spoke on the condition of anonymity about the News's troubles:
        "The issues you raise are those several of us have raised among ourselves and, pretty much agree the paper has not lived up to its potential," he said. "I also agree that the heyday was in the late 1970s, but would extend the good days through the early and mid-1980's. During that time, post-Rodney King and Tom Bradley, I thought we did a hell of a job in looking at the LAPD and the fall of Bradley. I think we did something like 300-plus stories on the LAPD on everything from offficer-involved shootings to its various procedures on arrests, etc, as well as the political implications."
        Troublemaker went on to blame much of the papers's woes on the economy and recession, from which "we still haven't fully recovered," noting the lack of court reporters and reduced political coverage.
       "Another thought," said Trouble, "is that the Daily News's strength, from its days as the Van Nuys Call through the Green Sheet days, was its populist streak. What I fear is that the populism has gone to a mean-spiritedness that grew out of the secession movement. I admire the courage it takes to be a critic in your hometown. However, I also appreciate the thought, depth and caring that goes in offering solutions. The L.A. Times does none of the former, we do too little of the latter, I think."
        Trouble's points are well-taken, but money is not to blame for the Daily News ills. Consider: the original, ancient L.A. Daily News was usually third in circulation, and was housed in a former car dealership that shook like an earthquake whenever the presses ran. The desks were decrepit, the typewriters were sometimes missing keys (staffer Vivian Ringer had to pencil in her "o's"), and bets were made by elevator riders as to whether they would reach the second floor. Yet by all accounts, the joint was loved by the staff, and its pages crackled with vitality.
        "There is no one answer as to why the (modern) Daily News sucks and is, in general, a lousy paper," a former mainstay of the newsroom told me (also preferring to be unnamed.) "Part of the problem, I think, has to do with the fact that the paper is so obviously partisan. It is very pro-Bush (which is in line with the Singleton editorial philosophy). The editorial page runs the gamut from right to farther right. That wouldn't be a problem if the DN were published in southern Orange County, where such views are the norm. But the Valley (except for the West Valley) is more liberal than the paper.
        "And the DN is partisan in other ways, too. Consider the Valley secession movement. The paper feigned neutrality (of course, it came out the DN was a financial backer of secession), but ran repeated, blatantly pro-secession stories. And, it only grudgingly admitted what was obvious to anyone who can read a precinct map: secession only plays well in the lily-white suburbs of the northwest Valley. In fact, secession lost everywhere west of the San Diego Freeway and only narrowly won in the Valley because of overwhelming support in the Chatsworth-Northridge-West Hills area.
        "I think a major problem is that the DN ignores minority issues," he added. "Whites are minority in the San Fernando Valley but -- except for crime stories -- minority coverage is well below par."
        Editorial policy. . .the secession scandal. . .economic woes. . .revolving door. . .right-wing editorial slant. . .poor morale. . .Okay, sure. It's all true. But there is something else sadly missing from this Daily News, and missing from many a newspaper today. Again, I refer back to its long-gone, largely forgotten namesake, which died in 1954 in a mess of mismanagement.
        What made that paper a success for decades were editors who understood that a newspaper should be a pushy, well-written advocate for the community, and underdogs---and certainly that minorities should not be ignored. That there is a difference between pithiness and banality in headline writing. That newspapers do not pander to demographic expectations; they set them. That a good crew of columnists are the heart of a paper (as current L.A. Times management understands); that they should be provacative, poetic, and pissed off. And maybe most important: that amid all the very serious responsibility of presenting information, newspapers should be assembled with a touch of irreverence and fun.
        It is no coincidence that original Daily News staffers became a who's-who of L.A. print journalism, from Chuck Chappell to Jack Smith to Don Dwiggins to Jack Jones to Sarah Boynoff to Helen Brush Jenkins to Paul Weeks to Lou Haas to Roy Ringer to Matt Weinstock.
        The modern Daily News, alas, is a "who cares?"
        I should have told Schmidt to call it the Daily Snooze.

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