by Joe Shea
American Reporter Correspondent
January 12, 2001
LOS ANGELES -- This vast city's journalistic edge, once as vibrant and celebrated as that of New York and Chicago, has been decidedly dull ever since 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 would 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 occasionally in the spotlight.
Meanwhile, the most competitive organizations remain the newswires, principally the Associated Press and City News Service. Here in L.A., the AP daybook is upstaged by the City News product. But how well do those organizations cover all the news?
There's a world of stuff that goes on in Los Angeles without either outfit 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 hungry 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 dollars deposited daily into non-working parking meters.
Where there is competition, it usually isn't even on the same story. The Daily News deservedly wins praise from local readers by breaking stories of local malfeasance far ahead of the Los Angeles Times, which approaches that sort of thing in a slow, deliberate way that tends to bore us even when the revelations are substantial.
Only once in a decade does the paper come up with stuff of the quality of 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 somehow 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 politics, has taken over the city desk. John Carroll, editor of the respected Baltimore Sun, has taken over at the top.
Times-Mirror, the city's last Fortune 500 member, last year sold its properties to the Tribune Co., owners of the Chicago Tribune, the "other" national newspaper. I always found myself surprised to see it selling on 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 slow but steady erosion of its daily readership. Reaching out to new communities with its community papers turned out to be a flawed strategy; people want to read about their communities in the Times, I think, not in a clone.
But the language we speak in Los Angeles in many respects is no longer English; tens of thousands of adults who want to be informed read the news in Korean, Tagalog, Russian, Japanese, Armenian and Vietnamese. Hundreds 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 streets, of the high school corridors and rave redoubts.
How do you operate in such a bewildering maze of cultures and produce the 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 about 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 very large staff that can look into many subjects at the same time," said Carroll, 58, a college English major at little-known Haverford College in Pennsylvania.
Carroll started out at the Providence (R.I.) Journal-Bulletin, spent a couple of years in Alaska in the Army, went to the Baltimore Sun in 1966 and served as a Sun foreign correspondent in Vietnam, 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 pulled down a couple of Pulitzers; he took the helm at the Times late last summer.
"We have any number of plans to improve our coverage," he said. "Soon, we'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 several reasons, he added, but one was low penetration. "Even if their journalistic quality was uniformly excellent," he said, "they only reached a third of 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 we 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 exciting coverage. "I agree with that," he said, "We have very strong competition in some areas, less in others -- that's journalistic competition," he notes. On the business side, there's plenty. "Journalistically, we're in competition with the Orange County Register. and that's very formidable. We also have some pretty large dailies competing throughout our circulation area, including the Daily News -- which is substantial," he said. Yet he thinks the task of reinvigoration remains, and Carroll plans to complete it.
"I sure hope so," he says. "I don't want to over-promise, but I think there are opportunities to improve the paper and make it more magnetic to readers. ... I have to say I have I have been impressed with the journalistic 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 announced on Jan. 11. The Times will join a group of other major players, including the AP, CNN, the New York Times, Palm Beach Post, St. Petersburg Times, Wall Street Journal, and Washington Post, and Tribune Publishing, which also owns Newsday, the Orlando Sentinel and South Florida Sun-Sentinel, in examining the rejected Florida ballots that were decisive in the 2000 presidential election.
One mystery they might solve has already been addressed by the Orlando paper, which recently revealed that Vice President Al Gore might have won if his team had challenged the "overvotes."
In Duvall County alone, which went heavily for Bush, Gore would have picked up 183 votes just from ballots where voters had both marked his name and then wrote it in, too, the Sentinel revealed.
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.