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From AJR,   August/September 2012  issue

How the L.A. Times Is Using Its Ford Foundation Grant   


By Krystal Nancoo-Russell
Krystal Nancoo-Russell (knancoorussell@gmail.com) is a graduate student at the Philip Merrill College of Journalism at the University of Maryland.      

While many financially challenged news organizations have been shutting down bureaus in recent years, the Los Angeles Times is moving in a different direction.

The Times will open a long-sought bureau in Phoenix, thanks to an unusual $1 million grant from the Ford Foundation. The paper is hiring a bureau chief who will begin work in October.

Times editors had been kicking around the idea of launching a Phoenix bureau for nearly a decade, Assistant Managing Editor Ashley Dunn says. But doing so during a period of steep cutbacks would have been almost impossible.

"We keep flying reporters there from either the Las Vegas bureau or from Houston or from wherever to cover that area, but we all recognize that the best situation would be to have somebody actually based there, and so this really allowed us to do it," he says. "I mean we would have been sitting there for a long time discussing this issue without really being able to go ahead and open it without the grant."

The Times wants strong coverage of the border, Dunn says, and has reporters posted in Houston and San Diego. "But there is kind of a hole there in the Southwest. And whereas we can easily cover that hole, we said it would be great if we can dedicate somebody to that coverage there."

The grant has enabled the paper to hire five additional reporters. The Times is using the foundation largesse to intensify its coverage of immigration, ethnic communities in Southern California, the state prison system and the emerging economic powerhouse Brazil.

The Times has long wanted to strengthen its coverage of Brazil. But financial struggles have led to cutbacks rather than enhancements of its South American coverage.

Now, thanks to the grant, the paper has expanded travel and freelance funds available for Brazil correspondent Vincent Bevins, who is employed on a contractual basis, and other staffers who will help cover Brazil. The Ford money has also allowed the paper to cover the travel expenses of global correspondent Matthew Teague, who will now focus a little more of his coverage on Brazil.

"One of Matt Teague's first stories was about a long-running feud between families in sort of the hinterlands in Brazil," Dunn says. "The story was about the difficulty of ruling an emerging country where you have all these deeply ingrained conflicts."

The Times has allocated a chunk of the grant money for other enterprise stories, among them a series called "Without a Country" by Richard Marosi, which highlights the lives of deportees. "This just allowed us to take some of the pressure off our budget by funding the travel, travel that we would normally be more hesitant about," Dunn says.

The Ford-funded hires are already making an impact in the newsroom. One of them, Anh Do, began working for the Times as an Orange County-based reporter covering immigrant communities on August 13. She had previously worked for the Orange County Register and a Vietnamese-language paper.

"Over the last 20 or 30 years, Orange County has undergone this enormous transformation," Dunn says. "It's home to a huge Vietnamese, Chinese, Muslim and Latino community".

Do has filed several stories focused on the Vietnamese community. "Some of the stories we probably would have done," Dunn says. But, he adds, " 'Vietnamese Honor Their Mothers,' that's just a hard story for us to get at unless you speak Vietnamese. A lot of the stories, there would have been a chance we would have mobilized for them, but I don't know that we would have mobilized for all of them.

"Anh has made a huge difference. She's only been here for like a month, but she's just immediately makes a huge difference in our story selection."

To cover the California prison system, the Times hired Paige St. John, who won a Pulitzer Prize for investigative reporting last year while working for the Sarasota Herald-Tribune in Florida. "We based her in Sacramento to focus on the prison system, but she does a lot more than that," Dunn says. "One of her specialties is computer-assisted reporting, and so she's actually had a pretty big impact because she's just so adept at computer analysis.

"One of the early stories she did was a story called 'Untapped Cash Amid the Cuts,' about how there was this pool of money lying around that the state really hadn't owned up to even while it was cutting all sorts of things. And she did that just by analyzing the numbers. We may have stumbled on that, I'm sure we would have gotten around to it, but Paige just sort of figured it out. Her computer skills are just a huge benefit to the paper."

Hoping to deepen its coverage of Los Angeles' large Korean community, the Times hired Cindy Chang, previously of New Orleans' Times-Picayune, where she wrote a highly regarded series earlier this year about systemic flaws within the Louisiana prison system. "It was a really excellent series," Dunn says. "It caught our attention and we really liked it, so we hired her to cover immigration and immigrant communities in L.A."

While the Ford grant is paying big dividends for the Times, the idea of foundation support for a business us unusual. In two recent columns, media blogger and former editor Alan Mutter asked whether such a grant was appropriate and whether it would be better to give the money to a struggling nonprofit rather than the "cash-rich" Tribune Co., which owns the Times. Ford also gave $500,000 to the Washington Post this year.

"While there can be no doubt that the foundation has the best of intention or that the Times will endeavor to make good journalistic use of the money--the gift raises.. questions," Mutter wrote.

Joshua Cinelli, a Ford Foundation spokesman, says the grants to the Times and the Post are in keeping with Ford's mission to educate the public. "This is an effort to support thoughtful and meaningful journalism reaching the broadest possible audience," he says.

Dunn acknowledges the backlash, but says he is confident that the Times' will make good use of the cash. "For us to take such a large pool of grant money means that a for-profit is taking money from some really worthy non-profit," Dunn says.

"We understand that that's a problem. We understand that that causes hardship, but we think we're going to really use this money well."

The original version of this article was modified to clarify how the Los Angeles Times is covering Brazil.