Commentary: L.A. TIMES' CARROLL COMPETES IN DEPTH
by Joe Shea
American Reporter Correspondent
LOS ANGELES -- This vast city's journalistic edge, once as vibrant and c= elebrated as that of New York and Chicago, has been decidedly dull ever sin= ce newspaper rivalries disappeared and the "if it bleeds it leads" paradigm=
took over tv (I don't capitalize "tv", for that among many reasons. I wou= ld rather capitalize "newspaper.").
The absence of heated competition has shrunken the competitive arena to = the issue of crime, while corruption-hunters and the like are only occasion= ally in the spotlight.
Meanwhile, the most competitive organizations remain the newswires, prin= cipally the Associated Press and City News Service. Here in L.A., the AP d= aybook is upstaged by the City News product. But how well do those organiz= ations cover all the news?
There's a world of stuff that goes on in Los Angeles without either outf= it taking notice. Neither service has a full-time investigative reporter, = they told me, and only the AP produces an occasional enterprise piece.
Both are too busy handling the daily docket of celebrity news for a hung= ry world audience to pay more than passing attention to crooked health and = building and safety inspectors, erratic voter rolls or political sideshows = like the $342-per-day salary for city poll workers or the thousands of doll= ars deposited daily into non-working parking meters.
Where there is competition, it usually isn't even on the same story. Th= e Daily News deservedly wins praise from local readers by breaking s= tories of local malfeasance far ahead of the Los Angeles Times, whic= h approaches that sort of thing in a slow, deliberate way that tends to bor= e us even when the revelations are substantial.
Only once in a decade does the paper come up with stuff of the quality o= f its series on the 18th Street Gang. How many days in a month do we scan = the front page of the Timesin vain for just one story that is someho= w different from the daily grind of wars, crises and deaths? Too many. = Now, though, big changes have come to the Times. Bill Boyarsky, = always a hard-hitter when he was a columnist covering city and county polit= ics, has taken over the city desk. John Carroll, editor of the respected <= i>Baltimore Sun, has taken over at the top.
Times-Mirror, the city's last Fortune 500 member, last year sold its pro= perties to the Tribune Co., owners of the Chicago Tribune, the "othe= r" national newspaper. I always found myself surprised to see it selling o= n newsstands in Phoenix until I understood that its remote circulation area= was also the winter home of Chicago's "snowbirds."
The Times has been worried in the past couple of years about a sl= ow but steady erosion of its daily readership. Reaching out to new communit= ies with its community papers turned out to be a flawed strategy; people wa= nt to read about their communities in the Times, I think, not in a c= lone.
But the language we speak in Los Angeles in many respects is no longer E= nglish; tens of thousands of adults who want to be informed read the news i= n Korean, Tagalog, Russian, Japanese, Armenian and Vietnamese.
Hun= dreds of thousands would prefer to read it, perhaps, in the hybrid English = spoken by young Latinos and black people -- the language of rap, of the str= eets, of the high school corridors and rave redoubts.
How do you operate in such a bewildering maze of cultures and produce th= e kind of journalism that makes a couple fight over the front page as soon = as it hits their doorsteps?
John Carroll was kind enough to spend a few minutes with me talking abou= t such issues in early January.
"For one thing, I think it's a mistake for a newspaper to try to behave = like tv or radio. Our strength is depth, and our ability to maintain a ver= y large staff that can look into many subjects at the same time," said Carr= oll, 58, a college English major at little-known Haverford College in Penns= ylvania.
Carroll started out at the Providence (R.I.) Journal-Bulletin<= /i>, spent a couple of years in Alaska in the Army, went to the Baltimor= e Sun in 1966 and served as a Sun foreign correspondent in Vietn= am, then spent 18 years with Knight-Ridder as a reporter and editor for the= chain. His return to the Sun came in 1991, and the paper soon pulle= d down a couple of Pulitzers; he took the helm at the Times late las= t summer.
"We have any number of plans to improve our coverage," he said. "Soon, w= e'll introduce an expansion of our Section B, and if we do it well, it will= be one more reason for a person to choose the Times."
The Times closed its Our Times community papers for severa= l reasons, he added, but one was low penetration. "Even if their journalis= tic quality was uniformly excellent," he said, "they only reached a third o= f our readers."
Yet, he says, that mission is not the true goal, just part of it.
"I also question whether a paper as large as the Times can also= be everyone's favorite paper," he said. "I think the answer is no. But w= e do plan to expand our local and regional coverage for all readers in the = Metro section."
I offered my belief that competition is what drives enhanced and more ex= citing coverage. "I agree with that," he said, "We have very strong compe= tition in some areas, less in others -- that's journalistic competition," h= e notes. On the business side, there's plenty.
"Journalistically= , we're in competition with the Orange County Register. and that's v= ery formidable. We also have some pretty large dailies competing throughou= t our circulation area, including the Daily News -- which is substan= tial," he said. Yet he thinks the task of reinvigoration remains, and Carr= oll plans to complete it.
"I sure hope so," he says. "I don't want to over-promise, but I think t= here are opportunities to improve the paper and make it more magnetic to re= aders. ... I have to say I have I have been impressed with the journalisti= c strength of the paper. It's an excellent paper, and if we can't improve = it, it's our fault."
One big project that ought to rivet a few readers to his pages was annou= nced on Jan. 11. The Times will join a group of other major players, inclu= ding the AP, CNN, the New York Times, Palm Beach Post, St.= Petersburg Times, Wall Street Journal, and Washington Post= i>, and Tribune Publishing, which also owns Newsday, the Orlando = Sentinel and South Florida Sun-Sentinel, in examining the reject= ed Florida ballots that were decisive in the 2000 presidential election. =
One mystery they might solve has already been addressed by the Or= lando paper, which recently revealed that Vice President Al Gore might have= won if his team had challenged the "overvotes."
In Duvall County alone, the Sentinel revealed, which went heavil= y for Bush, Gore would havepicked up 183 votes just from ballots where vote= rs had both marked his name and then wrote it in, too.
Now why haven't we read that elsewhere?
This story was originally written for the 8 Ball, the newsletter = of the Greater Los Angeles Press Club.