Time to Go  | American Journalism Review
 AJR  Features
From AJR,   June/July 2008

Time to Go   

After a long career at the often turbulent Los Angeles Times, a veteran editor watches Sam Zell in action and decides to take a buyout.

By Joel Sappell
     


For more than two decades, I'd lugged my frayed cardboard boxes from one desk to another inside the Los Angeles Times, never bothering to peek inside. But now here I am, alone in my office, burrowing into them as though I'm on an archaeological dig of my career.

In one box is a clip of my first bylined story at the paper, as an intern in 1976, so yellowed it looks like parchment. In another is an announcement that a partner and I had won a George Polk Award for exposing illegal spying by the LAPD. Yet another is crammed with old printouts and keepsakes from a five-years-in-the-making series on Scientology, including a gift from some wise-guy colleagues commemorating the project's second anniversary: a cassette of Schubert's unfinished symphony.

And so it goes, well into the evening, a crush of memories spreading across 26 years. By the time I'm done, I'm in tears. What's wrong with me? How can I leave this place of so many remarkable moments and enduring friendships, where I've grown from upstart reporter to AARP-eligible editor?

But then, in a call to my wife, I'm reminded that the past is not the future. I'd come to believe that the Los Angeles Times, while still stacked with talent, is in decline, and that it's time to go.

On the morning of March 28, I walk into the Times' human resources office and submit my paperwork for a buyout that will pay me a year's salary while I try to figure out what awaits me in the world beyond Spring Street. As I turn to leave, another lifer appears legal affairs writer Henry Weinstein, who's been at the Times for 30 years. Among reporters, he's revered, widely considered to be the soul and conscience of the paper.

Face to face, we're quiet. Our tight hug says it all. What a sad day.

Sometimes it's best, I think, to read Romenesko at night. His Poynter Institute media blog (poynter.org/medianews) has practically become a daily dirge for the newspaper industry. Why start the morning in mourning?

On any given day, Jim Romenesko will link to one story after another about papers, big and small, staggered by eroding circulation and plunging revenue. Inevitably, there'll be a slew of items about a new round of buyouts in some corner of the country as panicked executives try to reduce costs before initiating so-called involuntary separations.

Buyouts in the newspaper industry, of course, are not new. But in recent months, with the Internet taking an increasingly voracious bite out of profits, they've accelerated in scope and frequency. In the process, more and more veteran journalists are being forced to rethink their careers in a business a calling they thought they'd never abandon.

In February, the buyout drumbeat on Romenesko got a loud cymbal crash. Pulitzer Prize winner Linda Greenhouse was heading for the exit after 30 years of covering the U.S. Supreme Court for the New York Times. Although countless others had taken buyouts before her, Greenhouse's star power made her an unwitting symbol of sorts. If she's leaving, then the industry must be going south faster than any of us could have imagined only a handful of years ago.

Greenhouse says she "didn't even open the envelopes" for the two previous buyouts her paper offered during the past five years. But after 40 years of daily journalism at the Times, she says, it was time for a second act. "I could be kidding myself," says the 61-year-old reporter, "but I think I'm ready."

Greenhouse, who's been named Yale Law School's Knight Distinguished Journalist-in-Residence, says she's shocked by the attention her departure has attracted. "I don't think I'm a symbol of anything," she says. But she acknowledges that her timing could be read by skittish journalists as a comment on the state of their industry.

No matter what the reasons, such high-level defections are forcing a generational shift that, while better positioning newsrooms for an Internet future with younger reporters, is coming with a cost, says Tom Rosenstiel, director of the Project for Excellence in Journalism. "It's not about the number of FTEs who are leaving," he says. "It's about what they know, about institutional memory."

We had such high hopes in Los Angeles for the billionaire from Chicago. When Sam Zell took over last year and said it was time to stop cutting, we wanted to believe.

By then, many of us old-timers had weathered years of internal upheaval and public embarrassment, thanks to the likes of Mark H. Willes, once the CEO of then-Times parent company Times Mirror. Willes, a newcomer to the newspaper business, promptly ensnared us in a scandalous revenue-sharing pact with the newly built Staples Center, which was being featured in the Times' Sunday magazine (see "Down and Out in L.A.," January/February 2000).

In the wake of the Staples affair, Tribune Co. acquired Times Mirror, and in strode John Carroll, with his Southern drawl, steely stare and satchel of Pulitzers. We were back on track, or so we thought (see "Let the Good Times Roll," September 2001).

I worked closely with John while running our investigation into groping allegations against Arnold Schwarzenegger (see "The Women," December 2003/ January 2004). Despite suffocating pressure from the action hero's operatives, John never blinked.

One night at about 11, as we were racing on a follow-up, I handed him my cell phone. Schwarzenegger's press deputy wanted us to hold the story for a day so he could get a more detailed response from the candidate. Coolly, John said he'd hold the presses for 15 minutes, no more, and suggested that the aide get cracking on that comment. John looked at us and smiled. With him, we knew we were in good hands.

During John's five years as editor, we won 13 Pulitzers, a feat dismissed by some Tribune brass as signifying nothing other than that a cabal of other journalists liked us. At least that's what Tribune's president of publishing suggested to me in a dinner conversation.

In 2005, tired of fending off Tribune's demands for cuts he believed would undermine the Times' quality and mission, John left the paper. To be sure, it was a difficult day for us, but the hurt was eased because following him as editor was the talented and charismatic managing editor, Dean Baquet.

Soon he'd be gone, too, along with Publisher Jeff Johnson, a friend of the newsroom. The two had publicly refused to swing Tribune's ax. To many staffers, including me, Dean's departure signaled an end to the resurgence of an institution that only a half-dozen years earlier was adrift at the top.

In Dean's place, our corporate parent installed Chicago Tribune Managing Editor Jim O'Shea, an accomplished journalist whose first address to a largely resentful newsroom was greeted mostly with silence. Jim, a good man, seemed uncomfortably overmatched by the personalities and the politics of the operation. He was widely viewed by the staff with which he rarely mingled as a caretaker, an impression fueled by the fact that he was living in Manhattan Beach while his wife was still living on the shores of Lake Michigan.

Still, despite the management instability, we continued to produce memorable journalism in print and online, a tribute to the resilience of the reporters and editors, who saw hope when Tribune put itself on the block. As the thinking went, almost anyone would be better than the Tribune Co. suits.

I suspect many of you know some of this history and may even have experienced something similar in your own shop. If so, then perhaps you coped like me burying the resentments, focusing on stories yet to be told, grateful for the paycheck and not pining for "the good old days" that sometimes weren't all that good and certainly aren't returning.

In all, since joining the L.A. Times in 1981, I'd seen seven editors and eight publishers pass through the place as I progressed through a series of management jobs after my years as an investigative reporter: city editor, metro projects editor, senior entertainment editor, assistant managing editor for interactive and, finally, senior projects editor. Not once did I consider bolting when buyouts were floated. I told myself, with a body of evidence, that the L.A. Times was simply too good for any one owner, publisher or editor to diminish, even given the hard economic choices that would have to be made.

We had no doubt our newest publisher, David Hiller, would make cuts others had resisted, the ranks of which now included Jim, who soon fled like his predecessors. But we hoped that Hiller, like his Tribune-appointed predecessors, would "go native" and be guided by the aspirations, if not the line items, that were part of the organization's genetics.

Our optimism grew when Zell, soon after his highly leveraged takeover of Tribune, promised investment, not retrenchment. But that didn't happen. Although a gifted real estate man, he'd underestimated the severity of the newspaper crisis and ordered reductions.

He also quickly began to reveal himself as thin-skinned and crass, upbraiding Tribune journalists who challenged his vision. In a meeting with staffers in Florida, he punctuated his response to a female photographer's question about the public service nature of journalism with a self-satisfied "fuck you." When word of the incident spread through our newsroom, jaws dropped and hearts sank.

Then came Zell's visit to Washington, where he gruffly informed reporters and editors that their operation was bloated, a drain on the company. Almost instantaneously, e-mails began flying into the home office with a blow-by-blow of Zell's performance, correctly described in the blog L.A. Observed (laobserved.com) as a "psychic bloodbath."

Zell has insisted that his over-the-top words are meant to shake years of complacency from the organization. Maybe so, but I'd heard enough. Soon, I was sitting in my first buyout briefing in a room crowded with big names and many who'd worked behind the scenes with little public notice or acclaim.

I had a sick feeling. Leaving was almost inconceivable. I wasn't Linda Greenhouse. I had no safety net. At 55, could I find a new job? How would I support my family? What about medical benefits and college for the kids? Most important, would I ever be as happy again in my work?

I tried to figure out ways to stay, free of the politics and uncertainties of management. I told our new editor, Russ Stanton, I wanted to write again, to communicate directly with readers. But Russ said he needed me in the editing ranks because of gaps that potentially could open in the months ahead with more buyouts or layoffs not an encouraging prospect.

As I agonized over a decision, I admitted to myself for the first time that no matter what the job, I couldn't see myself working at the L.A. Times even two years down the road. My fear of leaving was finally overtaken by a stronger belief that, like others before me, I could find both work and a workplace of which I could be proud again.

So in a leap of faith and self- respect I took the money and said goodbye to an institution that gave me a career of no regrets.

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