After writing his popular column "On California" for six years at the Los Angeles Times, Peter H. King took his talents to McClatchy, much to his former employer's dismay.
"He's an absolutely terrific columnist and someone I'm personally fond of," says Leo C. Wolinsky, the Times' managing editor for news. "I did everything I could think of other than tie him to a chair to keep him."
But when the old title appeared over King's new column, the Times grew territorial and staked its claim. When King began writing for McClatchy's Sacramento, Fresno and Modesto Bees and its wire service in March, his column carried the same name: "On California." It wasn't long before a lawyer from the Times called McClatchy to say the title didn't come with the columnist.
"It wasn't Pete's name to take with him," says Wolinsky. "No, we haven't replaced Peter at this point. But when we do, we intend to use the name 'On California,' again. It was a name we used for this column from the beginning and one we've grown fond of."
Many say King writes brilliantly about California and its mores. "He's also an intelligent, graceful writer who amuses without lapsing into foolishness, who can write with emotion minus the maudlin, and who can be very tough and direct without being abusive," says former Times editor Noel Greenwood.
McClatchy initially ran the column with the old title while its legal department investigated the Times' complaint. After all, the Times hadn't registered the name "On California" with the state or federal government, and it's not a particularly inventive title. After about three weeks, McClatchy received a letter from the Times' legal department telling the paper to cease and desist, says Gregory Favre, corporate vice president of news for McClatchy.
"My feeling is there's no sense in getting into an argument with a jealous suitor," says Favre. "The main thing is we have Pete King." Now King's column is titled "California Notebook."
Though McClatchy may have caved in the face of the legal threat, at least one newspaper in the Times' circulation area is proudly running the column under the "On California" banner. In mid-March, the Orange County Register, which subscribes to the McClatchy-Scripps Howard Wire Service, went so far as to put a front page "Letter from the Editor" in the Sunday paper touting its newest columnist. (Although McClatchy felt it couldn't use "On California," it has no control over how other papers present its material.)
The Register, which had tried to hire King when its editors learned he was unhappy at the Times, trumpeted the debut of King's column. "I'd like to introduce you to our newest columnist Peter H. King," Register Editor Tonnie Katz wrote. "Pete will be writing about what he knows best, the state and state of mind of California."
One would have to read carefully to realize that King, who declined to comment for this story, works for McClatchy — and not exclusively for the Register. Nonetheless, the Register, which runs the column on Sunday and Wednesday, is thrilled. "We talked to both Pete and McClatchy, and they were tickled we were going to run his column," says Larry Burrough, the Register's deputy editor.
No matter the name, the Times has lost a well-known columnist to many area papers, including its competitor the Los Angeles Daily News. King occasionally appears in the Daily News, a McClatchy wire subscriber, on its op-ed pages — sans the "On California" title. "I think it's a plus to have him in the newspaper, which is why when Pete King became available on the wire we immediately started running him," says Dave Butler, editor of the Daily News.
The Los Angeles Times protests after Peter H. King defects to McClatchy and continues to use "On California" as name of his column.