Battle Lines Are Drawn at The Los Angeles Times

021208 zell web Battle Lines Are Drawn at The Los Angeles TimesSam Zell, the Rabelaisian real estate billionaire who bought The Los Angeles Times’ parent company for $8.2 billion in December, went out to Los Angeles last week to shake things up at the left-coast newsroom notorious for its turmoil—overturns, layoffs, bad management. He did.

At first it seemed just an amusing counterpoint to all the Romenesko-style journalistic hand-wringing and self-examination that has plagued the paper these past few years when, speaking in the newspaper’s Chandler Auditorium and at the paper’s plant in Orange County, he encouraged browsing Internet porn in the workplace, said it was “un-American not to like pussy” and accused former executive editor James O’Shea, who left the L.A. Times last month and publicly criticized management for not raising the newsroom budget, of “piss[ing] all over the paper” on his way out.

For days afterward the previously harried and pit-stained editors were dropping “F-bombs.”

“Let’s get to this fucking meeting,” read an e-mail invitation to a weekly staff meeting for Calendar, the paper’s entertainment section.

“There’s a certain lasciviousness descending on the newsroom—I just look forward to using rude words in everyday conversation,” Dan Neil, the Pulitzer Prize-winning columnist told The Observer in the days following the meeting.

Then, on Feb. 11, as if responding to some unquantified undertone of dissent, Mr. Zell wrote in an e-mail to staffers: “My goal was to shock you, to shake you out of complacency, and to help you understand that the game has changed, and we have to change with it.”

And, a few hours later, three newsroom officials, including John Arthur, the paper’s managing editor, co-signed an e-mail to the editorial staff.

“Last week you may have encountered some colorful uses of the lexicon from Sam Zell that we are not used to hearing at the Times,” the letter began, before clarifying that viewing porn on work computers is indeed verboten, as is “profane or hostile language.”

“In short, nothing changes; the fundamental rules of decorum and decency apply. As Russ Newton, the Senior VP of Operations, observed in a note to his managers, Sam is a force of a nature; the rest of us are bound by the normal conventions of society,” the e-mail concluded triumphantly.

It was not just a bit of beadledom from the top of the masthead; it was a permission to unleash the counterrevolutionary spirit against the sudden burst of enthusiasm for Mr. Zell’s program.

“Listen, I’ve been here for the better part of 19 years, and there have been a lot of ups and downs, but [Zell] brings a whole new ballgame into town and people are excited to try this out,” said Jim Newton, the editorial page editor.

“At first, the newsroom embraced his coming here and saving us from the wimps from the Tribune, but I think Sam shot himself in the foot in his presentation last week,” said William Rempel, a special projects editor who oversees investigations.

 

IN REALITY, MR. Zell’s Molotov cocktails and his guarantee of change only further underscored the newsroom’s deepest division: the debate over who should replace Mr. O’Shea as the paper’s lead editor.

On this issue, the paper is literally torn in two. There’s the innovation editor, the 49-year-old Russ Stanton, the man credited for transforming latimes.com from a barely functional, moribund Web site into something of a machine; on the other side is the 60-year-old Mr. Arthur, a 22-year veteran of the paper who has worked his way methodically up the editorial chain.

“Is there a divide?” said Mr. Newton. “Absolutely.”

“It’s a battle over the heart and soul of the newspaper,” said Jeffrey Rabin, a transportation reporter and 20-year veteran at the paper. “What is the L.A. Times? The place is in a panic, it has been for some time and that’s why the choice of who’s going to be editor is so interesting. John represents one school, Russ represents the other school.”