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Jan. 23, 2008

          I looked at the photo that Kevin Roderick posted at 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, agonyyyyy.
          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 medallions. Heh.
          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 HERE

          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 worried now.”
          That can only mean. . .
          Good journalism in the offing!

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