AJR logo     

    
 AJR  Features

From AJR,   December 1997  issue

Blowing Up The Wall   

The Los Angeles Times embarks on a groundbreaking plan in which the editorial and business sides will work closely together, section by section. Is this a threat to the integrity of the paper or an exciting attempt to foster dynamism and growth?

Related reading:   Blowing Up The Wall
  Timesline
  A Conversation With Mark Willes
  A Bureau's ``Woman Problem''

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

ABOUT 50 REPORTERS AND EDITORS from the Los Angeles Times features sections trooped upstairs at five o'clock on a Tuesday in September for a ``meet and greet'' with Mark H. Willes. Only four days earlier, Willes had named himself publisher of the Times, a job he'd been itching to do since joining parent Times Mirror in June 1995 as chairman and CEO.

Many of the Life & Style staffers entered the sixth-floor conference room with great trepidation. The day before, Willes had introduced himself to the business section staff. As soon as the meeting ended, word spread that the boss wasn't too impressed with Life & Style. Everyone at the paper already knew Willes wanted to create a women's section, possibly to replace Life & Style, and even had a prototype in the works. Yet many writers walked into the room hoping for some upbeat words or reassurance about their jobs.

Instead they got pure Willes: candid, direct, unwilling to talk around a subject. And not afraid to hurt feelings.

Willes says he knew rumors were flying, and he wanted to clarify his position. And so the 56-year-old former cereal executive from General Mills, hands in pockets, came right to the point: ``Life & Style doesn't work.''

Yes, he said, he did like some elements of the section. But, he continued, it lacked focus. ``Business covers business. Sports covers sports. What do you cover?'' he asked.

One writer spoke up weakly: ``The human condition.''

Then, to the delight of his staff, Life & Style Editor Terry Schwadron rose to defend his section. ``I said that we detail those activities that distinguish us from apes,'' Schwadron says. ``That we cover our values, how we behave, how we dress, making the ordinary appear to be extraordinary. The rest of the paper is what the world does to us.''

After an hour, one reporter gingerly asked what everyone in Life & Style really wanted to know. ``If we don't get the section fixed,'' she inquired, ``would you close it?''

``I wouldn't rule it out,'' Willes replied. End of conversation.

``It was the worst meeting of my professional life,'' says one feature writer who has worked at the paper for nearly two decades.

``The point is Willes said it in a very blunt manner,'' says Schwadron, who has left the paper and is looking for a job. ``I came downstairs after the meeting, and it was like a wake. People were very upset. It's his style I have an issue with. It's easier to build on risk-taking by being positive than it is to be dismissive.''

The next day, Schwadron's staff sent him flowers. Three weeks later, as part of a massive reorganization, Schwadron was told his services were no longer needed on the news side.

Willes says he has no regrets about how he handled the encounter. ``If we pride ourselves in being honest with our readers, how can we pride ourselves in not being honest with each other?'' Willes told AJR when asked about the meeting. ``How can I be reassuring when it does lack focus, and it needs to be fixed? We either need to find a way to fix it, or we need to do something else. I think if I had said anything other than that, I would have undermined my own credibility. I also think what I said was probably shared by 80 percent of the people in the newsroom.''

It isn't that readers ignore Life & Style. According to Narda Zacchino, who until recently oversaw the paper's features sections, it is one of the best read parts of the paper, a section research shows that people read all the way through.

But it doesn't work for the publisher. Not only does Willes have problems with its content, he doesn't like the fact that it attracts little advertising. It is a surprisingly thin section, sometimes only six pages. And since it's not aimed at a specific audience, Willes believes, advertisers don't want to appear there.

Advertisers, unbeknownst to them, are changing the ways of the Los Angeles Times, big time. In mid-October, Willes shook up the newspaper world by announcing his plans to radically change the model on which newspapers are based. No longer would the once-sacrosanct wall stand between business and editorial. The two sides would work closely together in an effort to strengthen the paper.

``I've got no problem taking advertising salesmen to lunch,'' says David Shaw, the paper's media critic. ``But I don't want them dictating what goes into the paper.''

And that is the critical question: What are the ramifications of the demolition of the wall? Willes insists that he simply wants the business side and editorial to join forces to make the newspaper flourish. Allowing advertisers to call the shots about what goes in the paper would not only be wrong, it would be bad for business, he says.

But one thing is clear: Both his anxious staff and the world of journalism will be watching Willes' bold experiment very closely. If Willes' reassuring words aren't matched by reality, everyone will know.

HAVING JOURNALISTS TALK TO advertising salesmen is only part of Willes' radical revamping of the nation's fourth largest newspaper. Business managers are being assigned to each section to ``partner'' with the section's editor and work closely on strategic planning. And, unlike the way things function at other newspapers, many sections must account for profit and loss. Focus groups will play a large role in determining the direction of each of the sections.

``I think the A section--and every section--will need to have a strategic plan,'' Willes says. ``But I think the strategic plan for the A section will probably have more to do with readership than it will with revenues and profit and loss.'' Other sections that can be more easily targeted, such as business, sports, travel, the Sunday magazine and Life & Style, he says, ``will have both readership objectives and revenue objectives. It does not mean they will all have to be profitable. It does mean that they will need to be measured on that. Doing better is better than doing worse.''

In a sense, Willes' initiative is simply an extension, albeit a dramatic one, of an existing trend in the newspaper business. These days editors and publishers often work closely together on marketing initiatives, and editorial and business side personnel routinely join forces in creating new sections. What's new in Los Angeles is viewing each section as, in effect, an individual business, and having news and business personnel work as partners on an ongoing basis.

Rather than succumbing to the view that newspapers are in decline, Willes is certain the Times' circulation can grow. In fact, he's put out the word that he wants it to jump from 1 million to 1.5 million, an astonishingly ambitious goal.

Willes believes the best way to achieve that objective is to systematically increase circulation section by section. He wants to shake up the industry and put to rest assumptions that an ``outsider'' can't maintain strong journalistic standards, all the while using the brand-management techniques he learned at General Mills to boost circulation and attract advertisers.

Willes named himself publisher September 12 and moved into the job October 1. He succeeded Richard T. Schlosberg III, 53, who, it is widely believed, had been nudged aside (Willes says he tried to convince him to stay).

It didn't take long for Willes, an economist who once headed the Federal Reserve Bank in Minneapolis, to turn the place inside out. On October 9, after eight years as editor, Shelby Coffey III abruptly resigned, unwilling to work under a fourth publisher. Michael Parks, 54, a longtime Times foreign correspondent who became managing editor in 1996, replaced Coffey. And in an unusual move for a big-city daily, the paper implemented a structure with four managing editors.

But all of that could have taken place quietly--especially since Coffey had been rumored to be on his way out for quite some time--if Willes hadn't declared a revolution in the newspaper industry.

The question for many journalists at the Times now is how to view their paper. Is a particular section a vehicle for good journalism or a marketing tool? Or both? Instead of producing exemplary journalism and hoping advertisers will follow, is the paper going to create journalistic products specifically aimed at attracting advertisers? No, says Willes, who sees it rather simply. If a section is clearly targeted, well-executed and relevant, readers will come; circulation will grow, advertisers will follow and revenue will increase.

Willes embarked on a controversial series of cost-cutting measures when he took over Times Mirror in 1995. And while he encountered a great deal of criticism for such actions as killing New York Newsday, he has dramatically improved the financial picture at Times Mirror, previously known as an underachiever on Wall Street. The company's stock has nearly tripled in price since 1995, and for his efforts Willes received a $1.35 million bonus in addition to his $798,000-a-year salary last year.

Some at the paper are delighted to have a successful businessman at the helm. ``As for his lack of experience running a newspaper, I welcome that,'' says Steve Wasserman, who rejoined the paper a year ago as editor of its book review. ``The people with experience, for the most part, have been running America's newspapers into the ground. They are largely people without vision, and they lack confidence about the future. I like Willes' approach, which is passionate and intelligent and free of prejudice, not tied to the old ways of doing things.''

Others are more fearful about Willes' grand experiment. ``When I was a kid growing up here in the 1950s, the Los Angeles Times was a really crummy, biased newspaper,'' says Henry Weinstein, a metro reporter for 19 years. ``Then Otis Chandler started turning the paper around and transformed it into one of the best newspapers in the nation. I think we are all hoping that no one will tamper with that.''

And some are more outspoken. ``Willes has decided he's a great newspaperman,'' says Noel Greenwood, a former top Times editor. ``If he can make cereal, he can make great newspapers. The boundless ego of this man is awesome to behold. I feel pissed off because I put 25 years into that paper and was there when we thought we had a real purpose. Now it's all unraveling.''

TO UNDERSTAND THE SEISMIC shakeup at the Times and its lingering aftershocks, one has to study the eight-year reign of Editor Shelby Coffey III, or SC3 as he's known around the office. While Willes dramatically changed the Times' landscape in weeks, Coffey's tenure was marked by what many call an indecisive management style.

Coffey, 50, became editor in 1989, presiding over coverage of the Los Angeles riots, the Northridge earthquake and the O.J. Simpson saga. Under his direction, the paper won four Pulitzer Prizes and was a finalist 22 times. It was in the forefront in uncovering the Asia money scandal, for which it won a number of prestigious awards this year. In 1995, Coffey was named editor of the year by the National Press Foundation.

That said, he did not have a huge base of support in his own newsroom. Many praise him for his creativity in inventing new sections and renovating the old. They note his ability to quote Cicero, his Southern charm, his gentlemanly qualities (he's a descendant of a U.S. senator from Tennessee).

``But mostly he is the quintessential guilty white male: insular, kindhearted, cluelessly patronizing, endlessly infuriating,'' wrote Catherine Seipp in the L.A. Weekly, an alternative paper. ``And so, during his eight-year tenure, was the Los Angeles Times.'' For five years, Seipp chronicled the goings on at the Times in a wickedly bitchy but often dead-on column in the old Buzz magazine, where she relied on Times sources sharing off-the-record secrets.

Others rate Coffey much more highly. For example, Glenn Bunting of the Times' Washington bureau says Coffey was instrumental in creating investigative teams in Los Angeles, Sacramento and Washington.

``Shelby has been a terrific editor on several levels,'' says Doyle McManus, the Times' Washington bureau chief. ``He's brought a whole list of terrific, talented reporters into the paper. He's vastly improved the quality of editorial. People forget how undisciplined and sprawling the L.A. Times was in the late 1970s. It was edited by a shovel. Shelby has maintained the L.A. Times' tradition of long, literary stories, but has also brought much more discipline to the paper.''

But Coffey was cruelly cut down by the recession Southern California endured in the early 1990s. He used to jokingly blame Mikhail Gorbachev for his woes. The end of the Cold War slowed down the robust aerospace industry that helped keep the area's economy booming. The paper's profits tumbled. Enter Mark Willes.

``One of the things that was more difficult during the recession is that when you are in it, you don't know how long it's going to last,'' Coffey says. ``The first year and a half I was here, we hired an extra 150 people. We were adding the World Report section, the Ventura County edition. Then comes the recession, and you have to start making other kinds of choices. You work with attrition.''

Coffey was forced to shutter the San Diego edition in 1992. Later he folded some of the zoned editions he had expanded and shut down City Times, launched to cover the inner city after the riots, and World Report--two sections Coffey had initiated.

But his critics focus on what they consider his lack of strong leadership. ``Shelby likes to put off decisions...,'' says Greenwood, who worked with Coffey and unsuccessfully competed with him for the paper's top job. ``You'd say, `Shelby, should we do this or shouldn't we?' and he'd say: `Let's talk it through.' And we'd get exasperated: `Shelby, we've been talking about it for three weeks.' ''

Some say what comes off as an inability to make a decision stems from Coffey's reluctance to hurt anyone's feelings. When he and former Publisher Schlosberg were trying to choose a managing editor after the popular George Cotliar retired, Coffey wanted to create a managing editor's job shared by editors Narda Zacchino and Carol Stogsdill. Instead Parks, who had spent most of his career overseas, won the coveted slot in the summer of 1996, largely, say many, because Schlosberg pushed for him. (New Editor Parks, it should be noted, ended up with four managing editors.)

``Shelby never settled on a choice,'' says one insider. ``He liked Narda. He liked Carol. Michael Parks was clearly Schlosberg's favorite. He was Shelby's consensus choice. It's inaccurate to say that Schlosberg put him in over Shelby's dissent. Shelby's endearing quality is that he never wants to hurt anyone's feelings. He loves all his children equally.''

Coffey's journey to Los Angeles began in 1984, when he met former Times Publisher Otis Chandler, then a member of the Times Mirror board, lifting weights at an athletic club in Washington, D.C. The two men developed an immediate rapport. At the time Coffey was working at the Washington Post, where he ultimately spent 17 years in a career that took him from sportswriter to major editing posts. While he served briefly at the end of his tenure as assistant managing editor for national news, for much of his time there Coffey was closely associated with the Post's groundbreaking Style section.

Coffey left in March 1985, spending a year in what was then the revolving door position of editor of U.S. News & World Report. He then joined Times Mirror as editor of the now-defunct Dallas Times Herald. Less than a year later, the paper was sold, and Coffey moved to Los Angeles as deputy associate editor.

``At the time Shelby took over the paper, I think this was the most profitable paper in the country,'' recalls media critic Shaw. ``Shelby was young, smart. We thought we would see a lot of creative things taking place. And then the recession hit. I'm not sure he ever fully psychologically recovered from firing all the people he had to fire. He was ashen in the days leading up to and right after laying off 147 people. He's always been somebody who, despite his formal, stiff, cool demeanor, is very open to problems at a personal, family level.''

Willes and Coffey couldn't be more different. Willes is quick to make decisions. He throws out ideas and expects instant response. He wants goals set, things done. ``Willes' attitude is you try things and if they don't work, you move on,'' says an editor who has spent more than a decade at the Times. ``If they don't work, you learned something by trying, and you try something else.'' Coffey likes to ponder situations, put together committees to study problems, and in a collegial, democratic way, reach consensus decisions. Many joke that he's a hologram, and they need a translator after a meeting with him.
Click here to view the second half of this story.