Blowing Up The Wall  | American Journalism Review
From AJR,   December 1997

Blowing Up The Wall   

Continued

By Alicia C. Shepard
Alicia C. Shepard is a former AJR senior writer and NPR ombudsman.     


A NOTHER WIDELY VOICE CRITICISM of the Coffey era is that the paper didn't do a very good job of covering the sprawling Los Angeles area, that it wallowed in complacency after the death of the Los Angeles Herald Examiner in 1989. It's often said that the farther a story is from Los Angeles, the better the Times covers it.

``In some respects the Times does an excellent job, certainly with some of the coverage," says Edwin Guthman, a journalism professor at the University of Southern California and the Times' national editor from 1965 to 1977. ``But they've given up the tradition of having someone in an area long enough to make sources that make a difference in a story."

``The fundamental problem that needs to be addressed is they're just completely out of touch with their own community," says David Cay Johnston, who quit in disgust after 12 years at the paper and is now a reporter at the New York Times (another paper not known for its local coverage). ``They are masterful at covering a big disaster and deserved their Pulitzer for the riots coverage. But they are just blind to the important issues that affect the lives of their readers, and they are timid, preferring big investigations about small fry to serious coverage of big fish."

(Guthman, however, points to a powerful investigative piece, ``And Justice for Some: Solving Murders in L.A. County," a Pulitzer finalist this year.)
``Willes could well sell a half million more copies a day," says Johnston, ``but only by publishing a paper that is vital to people's lives instead of one that you don't have to read to know what is going on in Southern California."

And many don't read the Times. The paper's penetration in its home market is just 23 percent, compared to 43 percent for the San Jose Mercury News and 45 percent for the San Diego Union-Tribune. ``The Los Angeles Times is somewhat analogous to the New York Times [9 percent penetration] in that its appeal has been to the upper income range," says media analyst John Morton. ``The only way to expand it is to go after a lower demographic profile."

One way or another, Willes is determined to attract more readers. And the paper already has forward momentum. Thanks in part to dropping the price from 50 cents to a quarter in June 1996 and to a multimillion dollar ``brand" marketing campaign begun in April 1996, the paper's daily circulation has shown year over year gains for three consecutive reporting periods. For the six-month period ending September 30, daily circulation was up by about 21,000 (to just over 1,050,000) and Sunday by nearly 12,000 (to almost 1,362,000) over the past year, the Times' first Sunday circulation gain in six years.

But despite the rising numbers, the staff's disappointment in the paper is palpable, illustrated by the steady exodus over the last few years of top Times reporters to the New York Times. Each of the at least 20 defections can be explained individually, but collectively they amount to a no-confidence vote, say many.

New York Times Editor Joseph Lelyveld gloated about the phenomenon in his paper's October in-house newsletter: ``I think we are going through a great period at the Times. No one else in American journalism sustains the level of writing we do, puts as much good stuff on the newsstands day by day, week by week. It's recognized. We're the place really ambitious reporters want to be. Ask Shelby Coffey."

Such a talent drain--even to the New York Times--would have been unthinkable in the past, particularly in the Otis Chandler era. Then the Los Angeles Times, dubbed the ``velvet coffin," was the place to be. Reporters flew first class to farflung locales to write seemingly endless takeouts.

New York Times White House correspondent John Broder worked at the Los Angeles Times for 12 years, starting out as a young business reporter. Within two years, the Washington bureau beckoned and Broder was covering the Pentagon, politics and eventually the White House. Then the call came from the New York Times.

``And like every journalist, I wondered if I could play at the very highest level," says Broder, 45. ``I didn't know, and I was a little afraid to try. But that challenge and the broader unease about the Los Angeles Times' future made the decision for me." He left in November 1996.

``I've got 20 years left in my career," Broder says. ``Do I want to spend it at the Los Angeles Times with the uncertainty that hovered over it a year ago and certainly today? Or do I want to put my stock in the New York Times? I made that decision, and I have no regrets. And the events of the past weeks made me feel I've made the right decision."

``I S THIS THE COOLEST THING you have ever heard of?" asked Kelly Ann Sole, then the Times' wildly enthusiastic national sales manager for financial advertising, when I called to ask for an interview about Willes' bold venture. While some appear mystified by the new publisher, Sole, 31, ``gets" what he wants to do. She radiates excitement for the new publisher's plans to organize the business side around editorial sections.

``It baffles me that no one thought of this before," says Sole, who was promoted in November to general manager of the business section. ``I can't think of a better way to build a business. What Mark Willes is doing is just formalizing what a few of us have been doing for a year. Mark has the vision and the guts to make it happen faster. I believe if Mark carries that off, he will revolutionize the newspaper industry."

The Times' business pages, in effect, blew up the wall between advertising and editorial a year ago. Sole, who joined the Times 18 months ago, may have single-handedly and, she says, naively, provided the dynamite. ``I didn't know you never call someone in editorial," she says.

After a couple of road trips, she learned mutual funds didn't advertise in the business section because there was no vehicle geared to individual investors. So one night she called the section's editor, Bill Sing. ``We don't get any mutual fund advertising," she told him. ``Why don't we create an editorial vehicle to demystify investing? It would be a logical home for financial advertisers. This marketplace is starved for investment education."

`` `It's funny you called,' " Sole says Sing told her. `` `We get 100 calls a week asking our reporters how to pick a stock, what mutual fund to buy.' " Out of their conversations and the pairing of editorial and marketing staffers grew Wall Street, California, a section targeted at small investors, which debuted a year ago and appears each Tuesday.

Wall Street, California, says Sole, has increased ad revenue 40 percent over previous Tuesday business sections. ``It means we have a whole heck of a lot more advertising, and it's been instrumental in driving circulation," she says. Sole sees the possibilities, and has already proven, according to Sing, that business staffers can come up with great ideas that don't threaten editorial integrity.

``The business side is probably best situated to do what Willes wants to do," says Sing, who became business editor in June 1996. ``A lot of the coverage talks about the business side of the paper in the newsroom telling us what to write. The reality is the opposite. What's happened with us is we have a number of ideas for editorial products that would serve our readers. But we need the business side to create new products."

Market research, for example, indicates some 100,000 small business owners in the Times' market don't get the paper. ``That's a big number," says Willes. And so a small business-oriented section was launched in September. Says Willes, ``Having a feature in the paper that is directly helpful to them gives us a basis now to market to them: to say, `Here, we have this. This is going to be helpful to you. Why don't you try it and see if you like it?' That's very different than running a general campaign on TV saying, `Get the story. Get the Times.' "

Sing is adamant that his section won't create a vehicle just for advertisers. ``If the ad side says, `We can sell ads on widgets, let's create a widget section,' we will say no," he says. ``But as journalists we should be open to ideas regardless of who they are from. That's different than an ad guy saying, `I'm trying to sell an ad to Bank of America, why don't you do a story?' "

But the slope, as they say, is a slippery one. Only days after Sing made those comments, one of his reporters received something that dramatically raised her anxiety level. One morning in mid-October Debora Vrana, who covers mergers and acquisitions, picked up her faxes. One from the Times' advertising department caught her attention. The cover letter said something like: ``Here's this press release from an advertiser. Could this run in the paper on page two or three?"

Deeply concerned, Vrana took the fax straight to Sing's office. The editor was outraged and called higher-ups. News of Vrana's ``nightmare" fax ricocheted around the newsroom. To many, it confirmed their worst fears.

Soon afterward, Sing wrote a memo to reassure the troops: ``Some of you have heard about an incident yesterday where an ad department executive passed along an advertiser's press release to Debora Vrana. This is not to be tolerated and has been taken up with Janis Heaphy [senior vice president of advertising and marketing], who we expect to take action. Mark Willes also has been notified and I hope he acts quickly to put a stop to this by issuing a statement to the ad department and others stating the rules and that this type of behavior is not to be tolerated, particularly in these sensitive times."

Later Vrana said, ``I was really upset when I got it, but I was very encouraged by the response.... Maybe it was good this happened so early in the whole changeover, because it made it clear that this kind of thing is not acceptable to the Los Angeles Times."

Says Willes, ``If journalists can come to understand this, they'll worry less about thinking about journalism as a business," he says. ``What `this' is is the following: Any time we do anything to damage that relationship with the reader, we basically damage our own franchise."

If it became known advertisers were calling the shots at the Los Angeles Times, the paper would lose its credibility, and the value of its product would diminish. ``We would lose the whole thing," Willes says. ``And, of course, if we lose our readers, then we lose our advertisers."

Newly crowned Editor Parks says he isn't worried. ``If Mark's logic fails to get through, take a look at the people leading the editorial side," he says. ``We're kind of known entities. If we thought this was bad, we wouldn't be doing it. On the contrary, I'm confident we are doing something great."

W HAT WILLES THINKS HAS BEEN missing from some sections of the paper is a clear sense of precisely what their roles are and who reads them. He is determined to change that. For example, it's likely individual investors will read Wall Street, California, since it offers investment advice. In fact, each business section is now clearly targeted. Sunday's focus is personal finance and careers, for example, while Monday's is technology.

``Pardon me if I talk about it as a business, but that's how I see things," Willes says. ``What marketers have found out is that you're more likely to have a sustainable competitive advantage if you are very clear about what you are and, then, what you have is better than anything else out there."

The Times' Calendar section, which is thick with movie ads and appeals to the entertainment industry, is an example Willes likes to cite. ``Calendar is very clear about what it is, and our readers are very clear about what it is," he says. ``So it's become this fabulously successful section."

Calendar is roughly 70 percent ads and 30 percent copy, according to Associate Editor Narda Zacchino.

In September, the paper launched a weekly Health section. There's serious talk of a section aimed at Hispanic readers, which prompted a letter signed by 110 staffers urging Willes to drop the idea because, in their view, it's offensive to create a section based solely on ethnicity.

The prospect of a Hispanic section illustrates a dilemma the paper encounters in implementing its new strategy. Yes, there is a large Latino population that doesn't read the Times. Many inside the paper argue that the best way to attract those potential readers is by covering them well throughout the paper. But if wooing new advertisers is also your goal, it's much easier to do so in a specific section targeted at Latinos.

Meanwhile, Lennie LaGuire, the paper's city editor, is working on a prototype of a women's section. ``Willes called me up and invited me to lunch several months ago," LaGuire said in October. ``He started asking me about ways of making the paper more attractive to women. My first feeling was, my heart sunk. A women's section sounds so retro."

But LaGuire began to see the possibilities. She and assistant city editor Stephanie Chavez came up with a prototype they saw more as a ``consumer/quality of life" section. ``A daily effort to do something magaziney," is the way LaGuire describes it.

The initial prototype, put together in two weeks, included a huge, much-ridiculed graphic on how to fold fitted sheets. Folding techniques have vanished in the third prototype, which has evolved into an 18-page daily magazine with the working title ``The Source: A Guide to Outfitting Your Life." Its best feature may be a 10-minute meal recipe incorporating prepared foods that can be picked up on the way home.

Having a city editor work on the prototype is pure Willes. He wants to break up dukedoms and get people all over the paper brainstorming on new ideas. ``One of the things that's been a problem here is this is a very territorial, turf-driven paper...," LaGuire says. ``I firmly think going through this exercise of inventing something new is important. It shakes us out of our fiefdoms. It's made me a much better journalist."

Willes says he hasn't decided yet if Life & Style will get the ax, and at press time the folks there were running scared. Some were sending out resum*s. Others were waiting, watching. Rumors were flying.

The uncertainty about where the Times is heading has created palpable paranoia at the paper. While I interviewed more than 30 current staffers for this piece, very few would talk on the record. Off, no problem. ``I can't be quoted by name," pleaded more than one person. ``Don't even call me a business editor. Just an editor is fine," one staffer said. When I wanted to get past security to roam the newsroom after Coffey's resignation on October 9, a reporter agreed to let me in but insisted I walk behind her and we not be seen together.

Shaw says the anxiety is understandable. The paper is no longer the ``velvet coffin," and the future seems uncertain. He sees two potential storylines: ``The best case scenario is through creative approaches we get more readers, more advertisers and pour some of those profits back into making the paper better journalistically." The worst case? ``Regardless of what happens to revenues, there are further cuts which diminish the quality. There's a business side incursion which diminishes credibility."

Ironically, Shaw began working on a takeout about the breakdown of the wall between business and editorial in the news media across the country before Willes announced he was eliminating it in Los Angeles.

``Whatever happens, the next six months around here will be extremely interesting," Shaw says. ``They could be exciting and exhilarating, or they could be depressing. But they won't be dull."

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