Sam 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.”
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.”
Lurking in the background of all this is Mr. Zell. During a meeting in the newsroom on Feb. 7, the fractions were evident. In the Chandler Auditorium, people clapped and laughed; there was a palpable energy in the room.
“I found it really inspiring,” said one editor. “It was really, really invigorating and it was quite a show—that gets him far.”
But then there were those still unconvinced.
Mr. Rabin, the demographics reporter, said that the Chandler Auditorium was so overcrowded that he was sent into a spillover room; he said it was quiet in there, and that the only noises people made were occasional groans.
“The way I would characterize it is, people are holding their breath and waiting for the other shoe to drop,” said Mr. Rabin. “Until people have the opportunity to understand what this means, people are guardedly hopeful. We’ve already been through too much of this.”
“Sam treats us like we’re a bunch of people resisting change,” said Mr. Rempel. “We don’t need to hear that—we’re adapting to change constantly. If you want to change this ship around, you’re probably tinkering to do more harm than good.”
But to several staffers, the ones who back Mr. Stanton, that change has hardly happened.
“This place needs to shift in massive and uncomfortable ways,” said one staffer. “The whole model has to be turned on its head, it all has to change.”
“The younger people here are amazed at the entitlement of the old people here,” said an editor. “We need to acknowledge that newspapers need to transform and talk to readers differently without losing their integrity, and learn how to use the Web more intelligently. A battle of the heart and soul of the paper? No, the younger people here can’t believe that these people think they can continue doing what they’re doing while we’re hemorrhaging readers.”