Battle Lines Are Drawn at The Los Angeles Times

Since the Tribune Company bought the L.A. Times in 2000, the paper has indeed been in a panic; its weekday circulation has dropped from 1.1 million to about 800,000; its operating profit margin is shrinking. In less than three years, the paper has lost three chief editors who have been responsible for delivering the paper 15 Pulitzers since 2000: John Carroll, Dean Baquet and Mr. O’Shea. All left because of threats of a smaller newsroom, and further cuts to the paper.

There are those who see Mr. Stanton as an integral part of the future of the paper—the man who needs to fully turn this paper into a 21st-century product; someone who appreciates that news isn’t really exclusively read on paper anymore and can bring local news back to native Angelenos: Hollywood on one end, city politics on the other (Mr. Rabin voiced his complaints with Mr. Zell in a meeting and complained that the Baghdad Bureau was bigger than the City Hall bureau).

In October 2007, Mr. O’Shea oversaw the results of a so-called “Reinvent Committee” in which there were recommendations for things like “improving local coverage” and “closer collaboration with the online news site,” he wrote in a memo. But only three months later, Mr. O’Shea was ousted from the newspaper, and two editors said they’ve seen little evidence that either of those things have happened. That’s why both of them support Mr. Stanton.

“There seems to be a divide between people here who really want change and who are imagining ways to do it, and people who think we should just think about newspapers the way we always have,” said one editor.

“[John] Arthur is fine and well liked, just you know, AARP age and not necessarily down with the level of transformation that is required,” said another editor.

“Stanton has a more practical knowledge to make the paper current in terms of technology,” said Mr. Neil. “I don’t think Arthur has the recent experience with multimedia.”

“If Russ is chosen, there will be a lot of rejoicing among the interactive folks,” said one staffer. “His selection is going to be seen as the ascension of the internet-based journalism if he’s chosen,” said Mr. Rabin.

In a debate that’s been cast in oddly similar terms to Obama vs. Clinton, there are those who laud Mr. Stanton as the man who can make a transformative change, and Mr. Arthur as the person with the experience to get the job.

“It’s widely felt in the newsroom that John Arthur, who comes out of the long tradition of working in a newspaper, is the most trusted on the front to manage this paper long term and manage our reputation,” said Mr. Rempel, a 35-year veteran. “Russ is a solid guy, but he doesn’t have the track record to instill the confidence that John does.”

Or, as another veteran editor put it: “I think Russ would be a disaster. He’s not very experienced as a
manager and doesn’t have a lot of credentials journalistically. You can’t even think of the stories he did as a reporter, or an editor—he’s not even a star in that regard.”

At the center of the fear for those who are anti-Stanton is the feeling that he’s too close to the publisher, David Hiller, who’s unpopular among many reporters and editors. “Russ is at a real disadvantage because in the newsroom he’s perceived as being a lackey to Hiller, a guy who is held in widespread contempt,” said one editor. “We’re going to have to ask: Is Russ one of us? Or one of them?”

Under Mr. Stanton’s supervision as innovation editor—a job he started in January 2007—the Web site has entirely transformed. Between 2006 and 2007, traffic increased 26 percent, according to Omniture; page views this February are up 133.2 percent versus last February. The sort of blogs they’ve started recently—one authored by Lakers legend Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and the other, launched by the metro section, called “LA Now”—are a testament to the imaginative thinking some editors are demanding.

 

WHAT UNITES BOTH Arthur and Stanton supporters are their feelings about Mr. O’Shea, the outgoing editor. Both sides agree that news stories that quoted Mr. O’Shea leaving the newspaper triumphantly protecting journalism—therefore presumably putting him in the same company as the canonized Dean Baquet and John Carroll—glossed over reality. “Even in hard times, wise investment—not retraction—is the long-term answer to the industry’s troubles,” Mr. O’Shea said. But reporters and editors interviewed for this story rolled their eyes at that.

“O’Shea gave us very little leadership because he was so seldom in the newsroom,” said Mr. Rempel.

“Bless his heart, no one is upset over the loss of Jim O’Shea,” said another editor. “He was so ineffectual—he was never there.”