Let the Good Times Roll
After years of turbulence and trauma, the Los Angeles Times regains momentum under new leadership and ownership.
Susan Paterno (email@example.com) is an AJR senior contributing writer.
A RAPPERS'S MURDER taught John Carroll his first lesson about what it means to be the editor of the Los Angeles Times. Carroll took over the top post in April 2000, aware of the Times' bad press, the way it was referred to as "the scandal weary" paper and the "Times of Angst." There was so much discontent among staff members, the internal sewage was no longer merely seeping out of Times Mirror Square, it was flowing onto the pages of the city's alternative weeklies and into the national media.
But Carroll accepted the job anyway, bidding farewell to the Baltimore Sun, where he had distinguished himself as one of the nation's best editors. Within weeks of arriving, Carroll found himself on the wrong side of the worst of what the Times had become. He emerged center stage in a rivalry reminiscent of Shakespeare, replete with accusations of lying, scheming and treachery, with one faction of reporters and editors plotting against the other to defend their own version of the truth behind who killed the rapper Notorious B.I.G. Two metro reporters had named a local mortgage broker as the killer, attributing the information to anonymous police sources, then claiming the accused man was unreachable for comment. Chuck Philips, a Pulitzer Prize-winning music industry reporter, found the mortgage broker, wrote a story allowing him to deny the paper's previous allegations and submitted it for publication.
What ensued was "a death fight," says former Times City Editor Bill Boyarsky, who retired last spring. After the second story was finally published, the grudge match continued, spilling onto the pages of Brill's Content and the Washington Post.
When it was all over, no one was any closer to knowing who killed Biggie Smalls, but the episode taught Carroll an important lesson about the L.A. Times. "It was symptomatic of a problem that we had in the paper of departments not working together and their editors not working together. The bad side was that it gave us some bad publicity. The good side is that it gave me some quick insight into things that needed fixing. It wasn't an isolated incident. It was fairly typical of a problem that we had overall."
In the end, a lesser leader might have fallen prey to a classic Times power play. But not Carroll. Instead, he emerged triumphant, with hardly an unkind word written about him in the last year, a significant departure from how his predecessors have fared. It is a measure of Carroll's confidence that the Notorious B.I.G. episode barely registers on his radar screen a year later. "I've had worse problems than that," he says with a wry grin.
Carroll's latest challenge is attempting to catapult the Times over the nation's preeminent newspapers to make it the best metropolitan daily in the country. Along with Publisher John Puerner, he is presiding over one of the boldest quests in American journalism, remaking the Times section by section, continuing the work former Publisher Otis Chandler did from 1960 to 1980, when he declared that the Los Angeles Times would knock the rival New York Times "off its perch."
The odds against them are enormous, given the paper's institutional inertia, its tortured history of internecine strife and its powerbrokers' will to outlast their enemies, all set against the vast, untamed geography of Southern California. But Carroll remains unwavering in his commitment and daring in his strategy. In a break with the past, he and Puerner have recast the paper's mission, recruiting the best people they can find, including stealing two key editors from the New York Times.
Compared with predecessors Shelby Coffey III and Michael Parks, whose performances veteran staff members have described as tepid, Carroll is a swaggering Henry V, a journalist's journalist, a man best known for the swashbuckling bravado it takes to send a couple of Sun reporters to Africa to buy and free a slave. An old-fashioned news guy, Carroll "loves rewriting leads. He'll stay all night until it's right," says old friend Charles R. Eisendrath, director of the Michigan Journalism Fellows program at the University of Michigan.
While publicly traded newspapers across the country fire employees, reduce newshole and cut budgets, the Times, too, has initiated a series of layoffs and buyouts that by May had eliminated nearly 450 full-time editorial and business-side positions. But at the same time, Puerner and Carroll have been hiring, expanding foreign coverage with a new bureau in Seoul, adding pages and spending money on news, seven figures alone on coverage of Florida's election irregularities. Considering the cutbacks and consolidations of previous decades, the Times run may just be the last, best hope a newspaper has of trying to hoist itself to the top of the heap.
"My strategy is to be uncompromising in terms of seeking people of the highest quality in key jobs. If they're here, all the better. If I have to hire somebody, I'm willing to go to Timbuktu to do it," says Carroll. "A newspaper is only as good as the sum of its crafts. We're going to work separately on each of our crafts to bring it up to grade-A level: writing, reporting, photography, graphics, design, copy editing, headline writing, everything. That doesn't guarantee the chemistry is right or the paper's personality gels. But without all those things, you can't produce a great newspaper."
The Times continues to maintain its position as one of the best‹and fattest‹papers in the country, despite the turmoil of recent years, named often as No. 4 behind the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal and the Washington Post. "But why isn't it better?" wonders Catherine Seipp, who grew up in Southern California and has critiqued the Times over the years for various publications, including L.A.'s now-defunct Buzz magazine. "Why are there these top three and then such a huge dropoff to No. 4?"
John Carroll is determined to leap the chasm and head for the summit.
FIXING THE L.A. TIMES was far from Carroll's mind when the Sun's publisher told him that his paper‹and all of Times Mirror, including the L.A. Times‹was being sold to Chicago's Tribune Co. for $8 billion in cash and stock. It was March 2000, and Carroll had just returned from house hunting in Cambridge, Massachusetts, where he was planning to move if he decided to accept Harvard University's offer to become director of the Nieman Foundation. After nine years in Baltimore, Carroll was restless.
When he first arrived, the Sun was so stagnant one reporter likened it to "watching paint dry." Carroll reinvigorated the paper. He stressed big projects, hard-edged reporting and powerful storytelling. (See "Rising Sun") He also upset veterans while bringing in high- profile talent, presiding over acrimonious buyouts, consolidating the morning and evening editions and reassigning some unwilling staff members to the bureaus. Though the National Press Foundation named him "Editor of the Year" in 1998, it wasn't long before Carroll was ready for a change.
Over the years, Carroll, 59, has developed an "occupation," a "hobby, really," he says. "I like fixing newspapers, not tending them." He had done it at Kentucky's 135,000-circulation Lexington Herald-Leader and the 315,000-circulation Sun. In Baltimore, he had begun to feel "stale. What happens, if you're like me, [is that] in your first few years you can make giant strides to build a paper. And after that you can make pretty good-sized strides, and after a while, you run out of tricks; but you never run out of things that need fixing. But they tend to be smaller and smaller. And the things you can't fix tend to get larger and larger in your imagination. You just don't find the job as stimulating as it was."
He was very close to accepting the offer from Harvard when Jack Fuller called. Fuller, president of Tribune Publishing, knew Carroll well. A Pulitzer-winning journalist, author of several books and former editor of the Chicago Tribune, Fuller had nominated Carroll for the Nieman post before the Tribune acquisition of Times Mirror was even a possibility. Now he was afraid of losing him.
"Don't do anything rash!" Fuller told him. Later, over sandwiches at the Sun, the two discussed the possibility of Carroll becoming the Times' editor and what the job would entail. In the previous decade, the paper had gone from being the Velvet Coffin to the Pine Box, a place of layoffs, diminished travel budgets "and growing paranoia," producing "insular and dreary" journalism, as Dennis McDougal wrote in his recently released biography of Otis Chandler, "Privileged Son." Dozens of L.A. Times reporters had left for the New York Times. None from New York had moved west.
Many of the top editors suffered from "a terrible smugness," says Allan Mayer, who worked at the Wall Street Journal and Newsweek before founding Buzz magazine. "It's the classic example of the danger of the monopoly newspaper. They owned the market. They felt they could do no wrong, they answered to no one." The paper was also "cursed with bad line editors," adds Mayer, now a senior partner with Sitrick and Co., a crisis management firm. "The journalistic resources have always been there. They've just lacked the management to make the best use of them."
Sure, it's a mess, Fuller told Carroll. "But it's a great opportunity because it's a mess. You can really make a difference there."
A couple of weeks later, Fuller informally offered Carroll the job, pending a meeting with the publisher. Carroll would replace Michael Parks, who had been chosen Times editor several years earlier by Times Mirror Chairman and CEO Mark H. Willes. Willes had come to the company with no newspaper experience. He "stripped the place bare, made the Times a takeover target if anyone ever saw one," in the words of William Prochnau, who profiled Times Mirror for the Project on the State of the American Newspaper in AJR (January/February 2000) and wrote a follow-up on the end of the Willes era (May 2000). Willes slashed jobs, sold off subsidiaries and ordered his troops to increase circulation at the Times by 500,000, never really explaining how that could be done. Chaos reigned, recalls John Arthur, a longtime Times editor. "He loved to have the pot stirred."
Distractions abounded and were widely reported. While politically correct petitions of protest over one issue or another circulated, Willes ordered up gender- and race-centric source lists, offered bonuses for putting minority voices in the paper and announced he wanted more emotional, less analytical stories that would appeal to women. At the same time, news was sometimes ignored: In July 1999, for example, the Times didn't send a reporter to cover 6,000 Iranian supporters demonstrating for hours at the federal building on the city's Westside, despite the civic upheaval and snarl of traffic it created.
"Seemed like every six to nine months, there'd be some event that caused a huge uproar," Arthur says, with the "Nagasaki of uproars" the ill-conceived plan to share profits from a special edition of the L.A. Times magazine with the Staples Center sports arena, another story Times editors ignored until they had no choice but to cover it.
The place was "heavy with turf. The managers were always battling for control," says former City Editor Boyarsky. Too often, reporters and editors feared leaving the office, "afraid somebody will screw you over while you're gone. If you go out on a story for a couple days, and your career rival is in the office buddying up to the managers, all of sudden he's got the job you wanted, or he knows about something important that you didn't know about. And you're asking yourself: 'Why wasn't I there?' "
At the same time, the paper "has never been able to conquer" Southern California, Boyarsky says. With its hundreds of expansive suburbs and interconnected cities, Southern California is one of the hardest regions in the nation to cover. The sprawl, partially created by the Times' founders for their economic gain--they controlled the politicians who sanctioned the region's unchecked development--is a legacy left to haunt the paper's new managers. The Times' five-county focus, an area roughly the size of Maine, is sliced into dozens of pieces by one of the most extensive freeway networks in the world, fragmenting readers by geography, interests, race and culture.
This was the Times Fuller wanted Carroll to inherit. It was also a newspaper of great distinction, with a passel of Pulitzers to prove it; only now it was sagging, like an aging society matron whose diminished fortunes have left her living in a mansion filled with cobwebs and covered furniture. "I felt flattered, and I considered it an honor," Carroll recalls. "But I was still headed to Harvard."
Out of respect for Fuller, though, Carroll agreed to think further about the possibility. At home the next day, he felt depressed. The 1-million-plus-circulation Times would be "a wonderful opportunity to take a newspaper that had problems, but also monumental strengths, to get rid of the problems and build on the strengths. My viscera were telling me that something was wrong. I went on a walk, and I started thinking about what it would be like to go to L.A., what the possibilities were and how incredibly exciting and stimulating and challenging it would be. I literally found myself walking with a spring in my step. I noticed that I was bouncing. And I knew then that I had to tell Harvard, 'No,' and that I was going to L.A. It was not a decision of the intellect; it was a decision of emotion."
AWARE OF THE TRIALS ahead, Carroll refused to accept the challenge without allies, the first and most important of whom was Publisher John Puerner. A longtime Tribune man, Puerner had helped transform his previous paper, the Orlando Sentinel, into what the New York Times called "a showcase of the Tribune Co.'s ambitions in multimedia reporting and news delivery."
Tan and fit, Puerner walks with a confident swagger, a sweep of light brown hair spilling across his forehead. At a distance, he looks far younger than 49. Up close, he has the creases and puffy eyes that come with too many hours spent on the job. Puerner's extensive knowledge of newspapers contrasts sharply with that of his two predecessors. And he impressed many on staff when he pulled out a bass guitar after the last Times editorial awards, held at the $400-a-night Beverly Hills Hotel, and started jamming with the band in the bar. It was also Puerner's idea to build a music studio in the Times' basement, "a creative outlet in the workplace," he says, part "of our corporate wellness program."
The Tribune Co. brought Puerner in to help negotiate the Times Mirror deal last year; when it was done, Puerner stayed behind as publisher, the 10th in the paper's 118-year history, the fifth in the previous six years. Carroll and Puerner, it turned out, shared a vision of national greatness for the paper, articulated by Tribune Publishing President Fuller: "The Times," says Fuller, "has the ability to become the best overall daily metropolitan newspaper in the country." To succeed, Carroll and Puerner agreed, the paper had to maintain its extensive foreign and Washington operations, competing aggressively with the New York Times and Washington Post internationally and nationally, improving its position as the dominant newspaper of the West.
At the editor's request, Puerner minimized Carroll's involvement in business and marketing initiatives. "I've never discovered a time-efficient way of being editor," Carroll says. "You're basically doing all the things a manager and a leader does, but you're also practicing a craft, and you're getting other people to practice the craft the way you want them to do it. You can't be a one-minute manager and do that. You've got to sit side by side with them and work on headlines and work on stories, and assign photos and so on, or they won't know what you want."
Throughout his career, Carroll had distinguished himself as one of the country's champions of investigative reporting, unbowed by criticism and threats from such powerful institutions as the University of Kentucky basketball program and the U.S. military. An aging Gary Cooper with a tendency to roll up his sleeves as the afternoon fades, Carroll is described by even the most cynical as a decent guy and a great newsman. At a spring gathering of the California Society of Newspaper Editors, San Francisco Chronicle Executive Editor Phil Bronstein introduced him as "one of the last of the great gentleman editors."
Puerner and Carroll announced their partnership the same week "The Finger" column in the alternative weekly New Times reported so many insurrections brewing in the Times newsroom "it makes this digit's thimble spin." Some inside the paper voiced serious doubts about Carroll and Puerner. How could they, coming from much smaller papers, lead the Times? In an unusually conciliatory passage, "The Finger" urged the Times staff to stop the PC petition passing and "give the new bosses a chance."
The two started by working to understand Southern California. Los Angeles County has 88 individual municipalities, some of which likely "haven't seen a reporter in five years," Carroll says. The Times operated as four largely independent papers circulating in 13 separate newspaper markets, from the wealthy beach communities north in Ventura County to the rural horse ranches 120 miles south in Orange County. The paper dominates only in Los Angeles, trailing most of its suburban competitors. It does outsell Los Angeles' Daily News in its home turf in the San Fernando Valley, a sprawling area north, west and east of downtown and an integral part of the city of Los Angeles.
In 1998, in an attempt to prevent more formidable rivals from invading, the Times reported the paper's executives had loaned William Dean Singleton's Media News Group $50 million to help buy the Daily News. The contract also allowed the Times to purchase the Daily News, an unlikely event given current antitrust laws. (But laws change: The Federal Communications Commission is expected to reverse a 1974 rule banning newspapers from owning television stations in the same city, allowing Tribune to keep its newspapers and TV stations in Los Angeles, New York, South Florida and Hartford.)
The loan gave Singleton nearly all the suburban dailies that ring Los Angeles, leaving the rest of the region to others: To the south, the Copley-owned Daily Breeze dominates Torrance and the wealthy Palos Verdes peninsula. In Orange County, where the $61,812 median income is among the highest in the country, the Freedom Communications-owned Register has long beaten the Times 2-to-1 in circulation and staffing.
To kick-start the operation, Puerner began dismantling much of what Willes had built. Unlike the previous management, whose vow to "blow up the wall" between advertising and editorial led to the scandalous Staples profit-sharing deal, industrywide indignation and a beaten-down staff, the Times' new leaders told the news staff to focus on journalism and let the business side make money. Walls came down after Carroll and Puerner arrived, too, but this time to make room for offices for the new team, including highly regarded designer Joe Hutchinson and Joe Russin, charged with distributing L.A. Times' content to the online operation and broadcasters, including Tribune-owned KTLA Channel 5.
Puerner launched a cost-cutting effort by canceling about 70,000 papers given to subscribers of the Spanish-language daily La Opinión, circulation that was draining profit. He also reduced newsprint waste, replaced nearly 1,600 part-time employees who delivered papers to retail outlets and racks with independent distributors, eliminated about 150 driver and mechanic positions and fired 125 reporters toiling in zoned editions called Our Times. Intended to provide much needed, high-quality local news in many of Southern California's hundreds of small cities, the zoned editions gave readers instead rewritten press releases and features so light they floated off the page. Some of the millions of dollars saved from closing a dozen Our Times went back into the newsroom, though Puerner declines to say how much.
On the revenue side, Puerner has been working with Tribune executives to expand national advertising. He also is formulating circulation strategies to increase local advertising and is committed to selling content whenever and however consumers want it, integrating print, broadcast and online news operations. With the Times Mirror acquisition, the Tribune Co. now owns newspapers and television stations in the country's three major markets, reaching 80 percent of all American households through its media channels. The company's domination positions it to wage war in the print world against the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal and USA Today to grab some of the multibillion-dollar national advertising market, supplanting the need for the indiscriminate circulation increase demanded by the Times' previous management team. "I have a different view of circulation growth," Puerner says with typical understatement.
Eliminating Our Times was the first step toward refining the paper's journalistic sophistication, a key to delivering readers that advertisers want. Locally, the daily Times reaches only 15 percent of the households in its five-county circulation area and 22 percent in its primary market--Los Angeles, Orange and Ventura counties--leaving it with "plenty of room to grow with the reader that we think is most attractive to the Los Angeles Times," specifically those "with post-high-school education," Puerner says. Because people with higher education tend to earn more, the Times is repositioning itself well, says Jim Rosse, who recently retired as CEO of Freedom Communications. The strategic shift allows the paper to dominate its "core market and skim the cream off the rest," he says; in other words, the Times can maintain its hold on the city of Los Angeles and snatch wealthier, better-educated readers from its suburban competitors. Profits grow, Rosse says, because the paper delivers a "better-quality audience at a lower cost--smaller circulation--and they can charge the same or more to advertisers." By repositioning the Times, Rosse adds, "they'll certainly be more profitable."
WITH A BUSINESS PLAN in place, Puerner gave Carroll the support and resources he needed to attack the problems of the newsroom. At first, Carroll figured his greatest challenge "would be moving into a newsroom that, to judge by reading stories about it, was an insane asylum--and bringing order and getting people to do journalism." Within a week, Carroll felt comfortable. "It's a hell of a staff," he says. "The one thing that really struck me about this place, whatever you might say about Otis Chandler, he built an extraordinarily muscular journalistic institution."
Not long after Carroll arrived, he got a call from Chandler, who invited him to his automobile museum in Oxnard, a seaside town on the road to Santa Barbara. After the two toured the millions of dollars worth of vintage cars in the collection, Chandler handed Carroll a detailed agenda. "This is what we're going to talk about," Chandler told him, and he proceeded to review "every major part of the paper."
Carroll, surprised by the list and its length, was nonetheless appreciative. "I admire people who care about what they do. He devoted his life to building this paper, and I don't think he can walk away from it. I think he's too engaged. I admire him for that. And I appreciated his interest. I appreciated him as a counsel. And I appreciated his restraint, because he has never said to me, 'John, I know how to do this, and you don't.' It's been more respectful than that. It's been sort of a Socratic way of discussing issues involving the paper." As is Carroll's tendency, he listened, returned to the paper and, as far as Chandler is concerned, has done "a good job" implementing much of what they discussed.
Carroll quickly disassembled the newsroom management team, long considered sacrosanct, disconnecting the Old Guard, severing the network that bound them together. "Imagine that you're sitting at a switchboard and someone comes along and unplugs all the lines," says one editor who has worked at the paper for decades. "That's what happened." He banished many of the power players, who have either left the paper or were moved out of its control center, demoting the executive editor and three managing editors.
He observed, talked to people, asked questions, recruited allies among the staff, many of whom report a euphoria unknown at the Times since the halcyon days when Otis Chandler, along with editors Nick Williams and Bill Thomas, turned the paper from one of the country's worst to one of its best. "I don't want to sound too effusive," says Deputy Business Editor Glenn Bunting, "but unlike [Carroll's] predecessors, I'd be willing to go through fire for him." Even Leo C. Wolinsky, demoted from executive editor to deputy managing editor, has nothing but praise. "We were always at 80 percent," Wolinsky says. Now, "we'll be at 100 percent."
Carroll gave up the old editor's office next to the publisher's suite, installed himself in a modest, glass-enclosed space in the immense newsprint-filled, block-long rabbit warren that passes for the Times newsroom and opened his door. Except when he goes home at night, the door has remained open ever since. "I didn't spend much time in meetings. I didn't spend much time creating memos. I spent a lot of time talking to people and eventually working on stories. Because you get to know a lot about a place and how it works or fails by doing stories."
At the same time, Carroll also successfully dodged a number of falling anvils, beginning with the Notorious B.I.G. incident, a mistake he readily admits. "We were dead wrong in leaving this guy with a cloud over him," he says. "That's bad. We deserved to be criticized."
With dismay, Carroll recalls the holiday weekend when he discovered there was no police reporter in the Times newsroom. The police chief's granddaughter had been killed in a gang-related shooting, and, Carroll says, "there wasn't anybody covering police. A town of 9.5 million people---no police reporter. That's when I knew we had a problem covering beats."
Carroll's search for "true professionals among the Times' top editing ranks," observed New Times Editor in Chief Rick Barrs, must have made him feel like a "well digger in Death Valley: Fifty feet, nothing yet. Seventy-five feet. Nothing yet. Bring me more pipe!"
CLEARLY, CARROLL NEEDED help. He needed an old-fashioned managing editor, a loyal ally, somebody he could trust completely, a moral beacon, a consummate journalist, a gut shot to the enemy. He wanted Dean Baquet, the New York Times' national editor.
"Out of the blue," Baquet recalls, "I got a call from John Carroll."
Courting Baquet was a bold move. One of the nation's highest-ranking African American editors, Baquet had won a 1988 Pulitzer Prize for investigative reporting while at the Chicago Tribune and was headed for bigger things at the New York Times. He had been rejecting overtures from newspapers around the country, something that didn't surprise Jane Bornemeier, one of his New York Times deputies and a former L.A. Times editor. Baquet has "a magnetism that people are drawn to," Bornemeier says. "He's a wildly creative guy with great ideas. I don't know when he ever slept. He was relentless that way."
Carroll worked Baquet hard: dinner at Manhattan's Café des Artistes, a weekend on the beach in Santa Monica, phone calls, visits. Bornemeier remembers taking long walks with Baquet, listening to him as he sorted through his indecision. The central question became: "Do you stay in your safe place, or do you do something bolder that might lead to even greater things?" Bornemeier recalls. "It was a great opportunity to make a once-great place great again."
"That was the lure for me," Baquet remembers. "How often does one of the best papers in the country bring in a whole new leadership team and say, 'Do something with this'? That was irresistible."
The New York Times did what it could to keep him. Then-Executive Editor Joseph Lelyveld invited him to spend a couple of days at his Maine vacation home, where he reminded him of his bright future at the Times. "I made the case that all papers are fragile, and it takes the devotion of people who work there to make them great," Lelyveld recalls. "I told him there are a lot of people at the New York Times who were devoted to him, chief among them me."
Then-Managing Editor Bill Keller did his best, too, telling Baquet his penis would fall off if he drank the water out west. But that didn't work. In the end, it was the allure of working with Carroll that persuaded Baquet to move on. "I thought I would learn from him," Baquet says. "It was going to be a hard job and a challenge, but I thought it would be fun to make changes and just try to do cool stuff. It would be a blast."
Lelyveld remembers feeling "shitty" when Baquet told him he was leaving. "I behaved badly. I wasn't a good sport. I felt it so keenly I wasn't in a mood to say, 'Good luck, pal.' " In eight years as editor of the New York Times, he says, "I haven't suffered many losses of key people." Losing Baquet "was by far the worst."
Hiring Baquet was a stunning coup. Not only did it demoralize the enemy, it lifted morale at the L.A. Times and provided irrefutable evidence of the power of Carroll's crusade. The new team's determination to hire the best reporters and editors, even during economic downturns, is a lesson Baquet learned from his mentor Lelyveld. "When everybody else retrenched, the New York Times kept hiring very judiciously when nobody else was," says Baquet. "They hired the best available people from the L.A. Times, the Miami Herald, the Philadelphia Inquirer and a handful of the best available people from assorted other papers. And they did that without dramatically changing the size of the newsroom. We can do that. We have the resources to do that. We have the will to do that. If we can do that when nobody else is doing that, then we can be a colossal paper."
Baquet, who turns 45 this month, is a feet-on-the-desk kind of editor whose tendency to slip "neat" and "cool" and "what a blast!" into conversations makes him far more approachable than his Brooks Brothers appearance would lead you to believe. He talks softly and, like great reporters, has a propensity to hang back and observe. When he does speak, as he did infrequently at a recent meeting to decide what would appear on page one the next day, he lends a welcome whiff of passion to what otherwise would have been a bunch of mostly middle-age white guys in crisp shirts and ties politely discussing the news of the day.
Baquet and Carroll quickly impressed the staff with their journalistic acumen: Baquet helped edit a Carroll-inspired exposé of the nation's decrepit voting systems. And Carroll helped edit David Willman's investigation of the Food and Drug Administration, which won a Pulitzer Prize this year (see "Where Are the Watchdogs?" July/August). "When you think [the story] is as good as it can be, [Carroll] tells you to roll up your sleeves and make it 20 percent better," Willman says. "He won't yield to mission fatigue and give up."
THE NEW TEAM first attacked the metro section, which Carroll described as "thin," hurt by "an edict that seemed to say: 'If you're not writing for page one, it doesn't really count.' A newspaper with 1,100-plus [editorial] staff ought to be fascinating on every page, all the way to the comics. We had no systematic way of covering this very large community. It's hard enough to do it when you've got a system. It's impossible when you've got no system." ###
Miriam Pawel, an assistant managing editor from Newsday, became the new metropolitan editor, making it the first time in the paper's history that arguably the four most important positions--publisher, editor, managing editor and metro editor--have been filled simultaneously by outsiders. Combative and intensely loyal, her office decorated with stuffed animals, Pawel supervised the Pulitzer Prize-winning coverage of TWA Flight 800 when it crashed off Long Island in 1996. She made news the next year, too, when she sent a pig's head to a Newsday columnist who had been critical of a series of stories Pawel's team had done on special education. Though many at the Times praise Pawel for her organization and dedication, "historically speaking, in parts of the Newsday newsroom, there's no love lost for Pawel," wrote John Mancini in the Long Island Voice in December 1997. Pawel declined comment on the pig's-head prank, preferring instead to focus on her plan to conquer California and local coverage, a job she takes seriously, working 10 hours a day, more when she gets home and usually on weekends.
Together, the new leadership team redeployed about 20 percent of the newsroom staff to new reporting and editing assignments, reorganizing the paper primarily by topics rather than geography, adding beats, which had been largely abandoned in previous years. They hired an editor to oversee the paper's scattered copy-desk operations and consolidated the various sports departments, eliminating game-by-game high- school coverage and the extra news pages the regional editions carried for them. At least a dozen reporters and editors were reassigned to other parts of the paper. Business hired a half dozen reporters and editors to expand technology and entertainment coverage, and many more stories on those subjects began appearing on page one. LATimes. com, which lost 20 percent of its staff in a fall layoff, debuted a new Web design in July. The new site shares a common platform with other Tribune online operations, allowing the company to deliver a larger audience to advertisers and to share content.
By this summer, the restructuring had brought about an abundance of internal changes. Two of the editors feuding over the Notorious B.I.G. story were gone, and a third had become a lifestyle reporter. Nearly half of the names on the masthead had vanished. Former Associate Editor and Reader Representative Narda Zacchino went to work as senior editor at the San Francisco Chronicle, her column eliminated; former Managing Editor Karen Wada went to Los Angeles Magazine; former Managing Editor John Arthur took over as assistant managing editor in charge of the paper's pagination project; former Metro Editor Roxane Arnold became an assistant to the editor in charge of Column 1, the Times' daily in-depth news feature.
Gone were myriad columnists who had sucked up reporting resources, including Mike Downey, who a year ago had presciently predicted in a column about the Tribune Co.: "The next job I have at this newspaper will be delivering it." In sports, sarcastic and caustic T.J. Simers replaced Randy Harvey, who remains at the paper. (Broadcaster Keith Olbermann characterized one Simers column--about same-sex couples at L.A. Sparks games--"homophobic as hell," and thousands of Philadelphia 76ers fans sent Simers hate mail after he called Philadelphia "a hell hole.") The few surviving metro columnists were moved inside the second section to make room for showcase scribes Pete King and Steve Lopez, formerly a highly regarded columnist at both Time magazine and the Philadelphia Inquirer. In recent columns, Lopez has stood out with strong opinions, eviscerating embattled Rep. Gary Condit and assorted local politicians and powerbrokers, writing a hilarious account of paying a day laborer to ride with him on an errand so he could use the carpool lane during rush hour. He agreed to come to the Times, in part, because "it might be the last big-city metro to try to take a step or two forward instead of falling into the hole like so many other newspapers are doing."
Lopez and King, a veteran Times staff writer, alternate on page one of the newly named California section, which replaced metro in the spring. Borrowing its organizational logic from the New York Times, the paper added two daily pages of national and foreign news to the first section and four pages of Los Angeles news to the second section. Carroll launched two new sections, Tech Times and Working, and moved state news to the back of the second section, which now has expanded obituaries. "Before it could take weeks or months to get [foreign] stories in the paper," says Berlin-based correspondent Carol Williams. Now, foreign coverage has "much greater depth and breadth."
Stories in both sections are shorter, too, and many no longer jump, which would have been heresy in the old days, when readers often flipped from page to page to page. Carroll wants reporters and editors to craft stories the way he answers questions, the way his office looks: uncluttered and focused. So far, results have been mixed. Twila Decker, who quit the St. Petersburg Times last year to work at the L.A. Times, left in the summer to get married and to work on a graduate degree in journalism. While happy with the L.A. Times' top managers, Decker wishes some of the paper's line editors had more aggressively shaped story ideas. "At the St. Pete Times the editors get involved early and help flush out the focus of the story. At the L.A. Times, some of the line editors seem to be more like copy editors than concept editors who are really involved in helping make a story idea come to life. I think John Carroll is trying to change that, but it takes a while for those changes to filter down."
Perhaps the riskiest of the team's new strategies is forcing Southern Californians to identify with their state and region rather than their own county or city. But the Times has fought and lost battles against suburban challengers by focusing on the narrow and often parochial interests of each county in its three regional editions. Redefining the paper's focus as broad and far-reaching not only differentiates the Times from its competitors, it provides an important public service.
"Joan Didion wrote an essay in The New Yorker criticizing the Los Angeles Times for slicing Southern California in pieces," Carroll says. "Nobody in one piece would know what the other pieces were doing. There's a public service in connecting one community to another that only our paper can do, and we should do it." In Southern California, the center has never held; by redefining the region, Carroll and company may succeed in ways previous managers never have. The task ahead remains immense, the work only just begun.
The morning after the June Los Angeles mayoral election, for instance, the Orange County Register reported James Hahn's victory over Antonio Villaraigosa, something the Times didn't do in many of its editions; a new pagination program, scheduled for completion in a year, should allow for more late-breaking news.
The editorial page has nowhere to go but up, after having spent a decade perfecting the on-the-one-hand, on-the-other-hand approach to opinion writing. Instead of endorsing a presidential candidate last fall, the Times wrote: "In the end, voters will envision Gore or Bush as the new president next January...stepping into a silent Oval Office in the White House. What happens from that moment on is what counts in real life." Carroll's efforts to improve the section with occasional humor and trenchant criticism have paid off. "Now they actually take a stand once in a while," says New Times' Barrs.
Even so, the section suffers from a perceived lack of influence. In May, when California Gov. Gray Davis wanted to send a message to President Bush about the state's energy crisis, he submitted it to the New York Times. "This particular piece had a national focus, and the New York Times still remains the national newspaper as far as we're concerned," explains Davis' press secretary, Steven Maviglio. "We felt the New York Times would have broader impact." Though former New York Times Managing Editor Keller has great respect for Carroll and Baquet, he sees little threat to his paper's national franchise. "To really have national clout, you have to be read nationally," Keller says. "It's hard to do that when across the board your circulation is regional."
In the next year, Carroll and Baquet plan to reevaluate every part of the paper, from entertainment to technology to sports, making the uncertainty among some reporters and editors palpable. Though the new team denies plans to reduce the amount of local news in the regional editions, at least half the reports in the Orange County edition come from outside the county, a significant departure from years past when the Times and Orange County Register competed story for story. Register Publisher N. Christian Anderson says the Times has drastically cut back in his paper's home turf. His top managers consider the turnaround "fascinating," he says, but the new strategy has had no effect on the Register. "Nobody here is running around scared."
A certain amount of fear pervades the Times, a panic that seems to be subsiding as the months pass. Some worry that Carroll and Baquet are making staffing decisions based on the opinions of those "who curry favor through personal relationships rather than with their work," says one reporter. As various staff members filed into the offices of the new editor and managing editor, "People outside were cringing, thinking, 'Oh my God! Are [Carroll and Baquet] cozying up to the biggest head cases and making them kingmakers?' " Some of those whose jobs have changed complain they were moved without a fair assessment of their work. And midlevel editors, threatened by the ongoing shake-up in their ranks, are passing their paranoia on to reporters, a few of whom describe Carroll as a remote, detached manager "whose poker demeanor doesn't give much back," in the words of one veteran reporter.
"There are some malcontents, but that's pretty understandable," says columnist Lopez, who has seven newspapers on his résumé. "Maybe they came in under previous editors who are no longer in charge, maybe their stars have fallen. That's typical of any newspaper in transition. This to me is a pretty stable place."
Even so, the Times' financial performance continues to lag behind its peer group, compelling executives to lay off about 50 business-side employees in June to help offset a 16 percent decline in ad lineage compared with the previous year. The Tribune also offered a voluntary retirement program to the newsroom, a buyout initiative aimed primarily at local staff writers over the age of 50. Executives want at least 30 employees to take the buyout, which excludes copy editors, columnists, section heads, their immediate deputies and the foreign and national staff.
Staff writer Ed Boyer was one who for a time considered leaving. At 62, Boyer has been at the Times nearly 20 years, having gained considerable attention for writing a series of stories that helped free former Black Panther Geronimo Pratt from prison. Given that the Times "doesn't seem to do too well hanging on to black men" in its editorial ranks, says Associate Editor Frank del Olmo, Boyer's tenure is noteworthy. The absence of African American editors on the local news desk has allowed for "some obscene errors," Boyer says: Before Bill Boyarsky became city editor, Boyer often felt getting the Pratt stories into the paper "was like pulling teeth." Though he has had little contact with Baquet, Boyer considers the new managing editor's presence significant. "I haven't the slightest idea what Dean Baquet's philosophy regarding race in this country is," he says, but most senior editors "have never had to sit across the table from an African American at an [afternoon] news meeting. Just his presence in the newsroom makes them aware of the racial implications of the decisions they make."
In the downtown office, the added news pages require everybody to produce more, says metro reporter Greg Krikorian, but he sees improved morale, a newsroom "a lot more energized. For a newsroom, everybody seems pretty happy." The new team replaced arrogance with accountability. In the past, when a story was missed, "the attitude too often was, 'We'll get it tomorrow.' " Today, "somebody has to explain--with all these people in the newsroom--why something wasn't covered. The new editors are not taking excuses."
But they are attracting a lot of attention, and none of it like the bare-knuckled attacks of previous eras, thanks, in part, to a more open approach. Carroll, in fact, has provided New Times' Barrs with enough information in a couple of cases to convince him the stories he was pursuing were off track. "These guys are smarter," Barrs says. "It makes you less likely to go for the throat."
The paper has stolen a number of stars, including Pulitzer Prize-winning writer David Zucchino and projects editor Marc Duvoisin from the Philadelphia Inquirer. Zucchino joined the national staff; Duvoisin became the Times' assistant managing editor charged with improving the paper's writing. The new team also persuaded John Montorio to leave the New York Times to become the L.A. Times' deputy managing editor for features, a job that had remained vacant for nearly two years.
Hiring Montorio, considered one of the best features editors in the nation, was another battle for Carroll, and a harder one to win. Montorio turned down Carroll's initial offer and was subsequently promoted to associate managing editor at the New York Times. But Carroll and Baquet kept at him, persuading him in late June to join the team, sanctioning him to reexamine "every feature section in the paper," Carroll says--among them Calendar, Southern California Living, the L.A. Times Magazine, health, food and travel--"doing whatever necessary to make it first class." For Montorio, the opportunity was finally too tempting to pass up. "When is a job like that going to come along again in American journalism?" he says. "To be at a paper with the power, the reach, the resources and the will to want to reshape itself? It's a newspaper whose time has come."
Carroll and Baquet also hired the Washington Post's Pulitzer Prize-winning investigative reporter and editor Deborah Nelson to head up a greatly expanded Washington, D.C., investigative team, which by next year will have eight members (see Bylines, July/August). Carroll and Baquet are "an investigative reporting dream team," she says. "The Post is a great place to be, but the Post always was and always will be. The Los Angeles Times represents a dynamic, moving force on the rise. It's an unusual moment in history. I saw [going there] as a great opportunity to make a difference."
By all accounts, the paper's writing, reporting and editing are improving. Readers and staff members alike praise the revamped news sections, not only for adding pages but for imposing logic and focus on what was often a disorganized presentation of stories and issues. Former magazine editor Allan Mayer used to read the paper "out of professional obligation" and then only skimmed it on his way to the New York Times. "But now I find myself reading far more of it," he says. "I have the impression they're building an infrastructure that will make it the sophisticated and cosmopolitan newspaper that this city deserves and never really has had."
Early last winter, John Carroll invited former Times Editor Bill Thomas to lunch. The two talked extensively about the paper, including Thomas' view that the Times will possibly improve under the Tribune Co. But it is unlikely ever to again aspire to become the nation's best newspaper, Thomas believes; the drive for ever-increasing profits precludes corporate controlled, publicly traded newspapers from reaching beyond a certain level of superiority. "They think any further investment in excellence won't pay off in profits," Thomas says. "So they stop there."
Thomas shared his views with Carroll, but they hardly dwelled on the topic. The problems of corporate ownership, Thomas says, "are nothing new to John Carroll." But Thomas' point raises a profound question about what is possible, one Carroll has considered but has yet to resolve. In some measure, a definitive answer is beside the point. The balm Carroll brings to the Times is a simple, yet uncompromising, belief in the power of journalism to heal and transform.
"I've had more fun doing this job than I've had in years. I've never enjoyed a job more," Carroll says. "Being editor of a paper this size, in terms of the pressure on you, and the crises, it's nothing compared to being editor of the Lexington Herald-Leader. Everybody in Lexington knows who you are when you walk down the street. And half of them would just as soon turn the car wheel and run over you. Here, you're anonymous, and if the mayor complains, you listen to him courteously. And if he's right, we'll change our ways. That's not hard. There have been fewer crises here since I've been here than either of the two papers I took over previously--by far. I've been working hard, but it's paying off."
And he sees no reason for that to change. "As of this moment, we have all the resources we need to be as good as any newspaper in America. Now, maybe five, 10 years down the road, things will look different. [But] based on more than a year here, I feel that we've been treated with great care and consideration. The Tribune people paid a lot of money for Times Mirror, and this was the biggest single piece of it. They bought a newspaper that is often mentioned in the same conversation with the New York Times and the Washington Post. They want to keep it that way. My job's not only to keep it that way, but to improve its position if possible. And so far, I've seen nothing the Tribune Co. is doing that can prevent that. In other words, it's pretty much up to me and the other editors to do what we're capable of doing. If it doesn't work out, it's our fault."
The conundrum Thomas poses, while important, is "only answerable by letting time pass," Carroll adds, "and by being a very effective advocate for the way I think it should play out: that the paper is successful in all ways, journalistic and financial, because we build it and make it better, not because we whittle it down."