No Cream for Shelby Coffey At the Los Angeles Times

Newspaper insiders everywhere are buzzing about the recent resignation of Los Angeles Times editor Shelby Coffey III. “A Growing Clash of Visions at the Los Angeles Times ,” declared the headline in our hometown New York Times on Oct. 13, putting the matter mildly. Mr. Coffey’s is the second elevated head in a month’s time to depart the West Coast’s major daily. (His replacement is former managing editor and longtime foreign correspondent Michael Parks.) Recently, the chief executive of the Times’ parent, the Times Mirror Company, Mark H. Willes, renowned as the “cereal killer” (he came to Times Mirror from General Mills, and his prior publishing experience had to do with Wheaties boxes), sent former publisher Richard Schlosberg III into the twilight and took over the Times ‘publisher slot for himself. In a time when sports events are named for cigarette companies and truck drivers wear company logos on their caps, it seems inevitable that the chief of the parent company would take over the publishing slot at his flagship paper. This is the man who, two years ago, pulled the plug on New York Newsday and trimmed 700 jobs from the Los Angeles Times.

A corporate El Niño, Mr. Willes raised hackles, waves, eyebrows and anything else that could move when he announced that each section of the paper would now have an executive from the business side, the better to plan mutual benefits. “Every editor has a business partner, as it were,” Mr. Parks put it to me, “who worries about promotion and thinks about ways, in effect, to market the section to special interest groups, like small business owners. Is there a wall between them? No, but the line of demarcation is quite plain.” It had better be. In the meantime, the new order has insiders in a tizzy. Metro editor Leo Wolinsky told The Washington Post that Mr. Willes “intends to get involved with everything.… He’s thrown a hand grenade into the middle of the system. He’s blowing up what we have.”

From any point of view, the paper’s declining circulation (down 21 percent in the last six years) looks bad, though from a business point of view, Times Mirror’s doubled stock value in two years looks mighty shiny. These have been bad years for newspaper circulation, with almost every paper in the country down, including all of New York’s. Southern California aerospace lost its Cold War subsidy, and the area is only now climbing out of a long recession.

So Mr. Willes wants to grease the business side, even if that means breaching the much-touted wall between editorial and business functions. Magazines and papers have been dynamiting their way through that wall all over the land in recent months-not that the wall was all so solid. Business considerations loom large in starting and maintaining new sections in the first place. It is not only at the Times that new proposals are regularly-as editor Parks put it to me-“focus-grouped.” Demographic targeting is now the industry standard. Mr. Willes has taken a lot of internal heat (a petition of 108 objectors inside the paper) for announcing a section aimed at Los Angeles’ Latinos-to answer the question (in Mr. Parks’ words) “How are we going to get people to pick up the paper who don’t do it now?” (Mr. Parks said the section is still being considered, and that while it would be a good idea to print in the paper at large more news of interest to the 40 percent of the local population that is Latino, that approach wouldn’t automatically get them to buy the paper.) Mr. Willes and Mr. Parks are also looking for a way to entice women. They note that the Times has a half-million female readers on Sundays who don’t read the paper daily, and are trying to cook up a new section, heavy on practical tips, for them. As for the traditional stuff of newspapers, which tends to get short shrift amid the demographic obsessions, Mr. Parks has hopes that an impending redesign for the daily paper will give him a larger news hole.

Still, amid downsizing, focus-group groping and segment chasing, it’s fair to note that not everyone at the paper is filled with nostalgia for the fellows with the Roman numerals after their names. Robert Scheer, Column Left regular of the Times ‘ Op-Ed page and longtime nettler of fat cats (he gleefully takes credit for helping to sink the ridiculous B-2 bomber beloved of local aerospace giant Northrop) is no fan of the old regime. He put it this way to me: “It would be a mistake to think that Michael Parks is less a journalist than Shelby Coffey, or that Mark Willes is less committed to the paper being great than Dick Schlosberg.” Mr. Scheer added: “When Dick Schlosberg made the decision to endorse [California’s governor] Pete Wilson-after Prop 187, after the welfare cuts, after his attacks on affirmative action, and forced that endorsement on his own editorial writers, particularly Frank del Olmo, the deputy editorial page editor, that didn’t show great journalistic independence to me. [Mr. del Olmo, the paper’s highest-ranking Latino, stepped down in protest.] I expect that Willes will do better.”

Another fan of Mr. Willes is the Times ‘ book editor, Steve Wasserman. A book review, chronically short of ads from an industry strangling itself on unsold books, is one section that could use a little synergy, and in his 10 months in place, Mr. Wasserman, onetime deputy editor of the Opinion section, has not been shy about moving and shaking. Mr. Wasserman has renovated what was a lackluster section, running longer reviews, rounding up unusual nonsuspects for major attention and, God help us, featuring poetry in every issue. He is not shy about beating the bushes for advertising (not yet with great success) and promotions (with this success: Eight Barnes & Noble stores in Manhattan will distribute his section free). No sign of softball reviews while Mr. Wasserman is looking for ways to get his section around and chase advertisers in what is-shame, New York!-the country’s leading book market. (Mr. Wasserman is a friend, but I am not shy about waving bouquets, having written for the section under both old and new regimes.)

Mr. Wasserman thinks the paper had become “arteriosclerotic,” “lethargic,” “too vertical, with too many layers of bureaucracy,” and is impressed by Mr. Willes, whom he insists is no Babbitt. So if book readers are an audience segment-a high-spending one at that-Mr. Willes is attending to them, too. A smart move.

Still, the credibility of the country’s fourth-largest paper hangs in the balance. That famous wall of demarcation between journalism and business is thinning to a one-way membrane. Integrity clings to niches. The Times will be closely watched in months to come. The burden on defenders of the Willes regime is to show that journalism is possible under the present conditions. The burden on his detractors is to figure out what to do.