Unhappy anniversary

Why there’s less ‘good’ news at my old paper

Today is the third anniversary of my departure from the Los Angeles Times. I quit, after 26 years, because the paper offered me a year’s pay and because. . . well, because I had never taken many chances in life, and this seemed like a good time to change that.

What’s it been like to watch my former paper lose hundreds of thousands of readers and many talented staffers? Painful. What’s it’s been like to watch the Tribune Co. muscle out two editor-in-chiefs and two publishers who fought against cutbacks? Laughable. Very much like a Vietnam-War-era episode in which commanders destroyed a village “in order to save it” from falling into the hands of the North Vietnamese.

Unhappy anniversary

Unhappy anniversary

I was reminded of Vietnam when a Times reporter duped me a memo written by the Times’ current publisher, Tribune Co. functionary David Hiller, who sent an e-mail to all Times employees in June. Hiller wrote about attending a Rotary Club meeting where a minister said during the invocation: “Help us to reinvigorate the world by having good news people, people that produce and publish glad tidings.” You know this criticism; we get pelted this way all the time: “Why don’t you publish any ‘good’ news?”

Hiller told the staff he had been thinking a lot about that moment, and that if the paper wanted to keep its readership, it would have to do more “good” news stories, stories that give readers “hope that we are staying with them…”

At which point I hope someone reminded the publisher of this harsh reality: It is much harder, and more costly, to find and publish “good” news. The very cuts that Hiller and the Tribune Co. have made at the L.A. Times are responsible for making the Times look more “negative.” The cuts are the reason the local news section too often contains little but bloodshed and criminal trials.

As those of us who do the actual work of putting out the paper know, bad news takes care of itself. It grabs your attention more quickly. It unfolds as news of a higher magnitude than good news. It is harder to ignore (priest molestation settlement, riots, philandering mayor, fires, floods. . .).

So-called “good” news stories rarely scream to be written. You may get a phone call from a source who pitches “good” news, but you have to believe in the story to assign it–and you may have to put a “bad” news story on the back burner to get a “good” news story done, especially when you’re working with less people.

Like most newspapers, the L.A. Times today has far, far fewer “general assignment” reporters who are kept ready (as in a fire department) for unpredictable kinds of stories. Almost all the bodies left after the buyouts have been assigned to “beats”–necessary if predictable areas of inquiry for bread-and-butter stories.

What don’t you see? Check out four stories from the mid-to-late 1990s that you would rarely see in the L.A. Times today because nothing about them demanded to be written. I was the editor who assigned each of them. I was able to do it because I had access to enough reporters–and because I didn’t have to sacrifice any “bad” news stories to get these “good” news stories done.

Only one of these four was about something warm and syrupy. There’s a whole other kind of “good” news stories: stories about the way people struggle to make it through the world, stories about how big events trickle down to ordinary life, stories about how people from other cultures intersect.

The first two stories were done by John Mitchell (still with the paper, still looking for stories like these, bless his heart).

Story 1: On the day in 1996 that Shaquille O’Neal signed a huge contract that brought him to the L.A. Lakers, Mitchell and I talked about trying to write about the way this event trickled down. The story, which made A-1, started like this:

Every time an NBA star signed another impossibly huge contract this week, Dave Koch’s job got tougher.

Koch directs 400 teenage athletes at USC’s National Youth Sports Program, trying to instill not only athletic skill but also an appreciation of discipline, long-term planning and the need for education. You can’t rely on the slim chance of a big pro contract, he tells them.

Then came the wave of unprecedented pro basketball contracts, so fast that it was hard for the boys to keep the names straight, hard for them to conceptualize the dollars: seven years, $56 million; five years, $50 million; seven years, $98 million. By the time Shaquille O’Neal signed with the Lakers for $120 million for seven years Thursday, almost a billion dollars in free-agent money had been thrown around the NBA.

And Dave Koch’s athletes, youngsters whose bodies have yet to catch up with the size of their feet, fantasized yet more about getting their share, getting it fast, getting it all in one shot.

“I’m a baller,” insisted David Santana, 13, stretching to show his full 5-foot, 11 1/2-inch frame and size 13 shoes. “I want to be a professional ballplayer too. I can do it.”

O’Neal will make about 500 times as much as a Los Angeles public school teacher. What coaches like Koch tell kids like David is that the odds of emulating the lowest-paid pro, let alone Shaq, are overwhelmingly long. First, David will have to make his high school team. That will cut the chances of making the NBA down to about 10,000 to 1.

“Kids read about these one-in-a-million athletes getting mega-million-dollar salaries, and it’s hard to convince them that it’s all right to be one of the other 999,999 individuals working hard to make a decent living,” Koch said.

Word of O’Neal’s deal zipped through the USC camp as the teenagers moved through their organized schedule, from basketball and swimming to discussions about first aid and AIDS. They tried to imagine the sheer size of the contract.

“Los Angeles is going to have the best basketball team,” said Shangameir Sutton, 15. Yes, he admitted, he too has a secret desire to be a pro. “They wouldn’t have to pay that much for me.” . . . .

Story 2: Mitchell told me he had stumbled into a donut shop with a fascinating cultural mix:

The owners of the Daily Donut, Lynn and Now Lay, are talking in their Los Feliz shop one bustling morning about how they escaped Cambodia’s Khmer Rouge, fled to America, went to school, learned English, bought their first shop in South Gate, and bought and sold enough other shops to acquire a mini-mall and an apartment building. Suddenly an old man perched in a corner seat interrupts.

“When you came to this country, you’d never seen a toilet,” Lennie Bluett proclaims for the rest of the shop to hear, “and now you have 14! It’s the American dream.”

Bluett is the best customer and best friend of the Daily Donut. He’s an 83-year-old piano player who’s been holding court for most of the 16 years the Lays have owned the shop, beguiling customers with wit and charm honed in piano bars around the world. “Mister Lennie,” the Lays call him.

Mister Lennie’s picture is on the Daily Donut’s wall, and his corner seat is reserved. When the Lays go on vacation, they leave him the key to the shop. When the couple, who live in the San Fernando Valley, were seeking to put their daughter into a better school, Mister Lennie became the girl’s guardian so the Lays could use his Los Feliz address.

Theirs is an L.A. story: the tall old black piano player, raised in segregation, sharing laughs with two rugged immigrants raised amid genocide.

Bluett arrives one recent morning at the crack of dawn, entertaining customers with stories of his travels and show-biz experience, peppering them with greetings: Buenos dias … bonjour … ciao.

Just back from playing at a hotel bar in Casablanca, he’s sporting a hand-knit Moroccan skullcap over his cleanly shaven head. He boasts that he sported the bald look before Michael Jordan–why, even before Telly Savalas.

“I was traveling in Switzerland, and all these little children came up to me shouting and pointing: ‘Kojak!’ ‘Kojak!’ ‘Kojak,’” he says. “I wanted to say, ‘No! No, not Kojak! It’s Blackjack! Now shut up and go away!’”

Bluett spots a Los Feliz neighbor.

“He’s a judge,” he warns the customers. “He could have you arrested.”

“He’s divorce court,” jokes an employee, Rosana Aleman, handing a Styrofoam cup of coffee-to-go to U.S. District Judge Matt Byrne.

The judge pauses and tells a story about a preacher’s response when asked if he had ever contemplated divorce.

“He said, ‘Divorce, never. Murder, yes,’” Byrne laughs, pushing the door to leave. . . . .

Story 3: This second pair of stories was written by Matea Gold (still with the paper, covers television from New York City). She had written a story in which a brief reference was made to an immigrant child who translated for a non-English-speaking parent. It was easy to envision an entire story on that subject, and Matea’s made A-1:

Jessica Ramirez already has a pretty busy schedule, what with 5th grade and ballet class and tutoring after school.

But the bright, affectionate girl with lively brown eyes also juggles another set of duties: After school, she sorts through the mail at her Boyle Heights home and goes over the bills with her parents. She marks down appointments and deadlines on the calendar hanging on the kitchen wall. If the phone rings, she jumps to get it. She sits down in the evenings with her younger brother and helps him with his homework. She accompanies her mother everywhere–to the grocery store, doctor’s office, teacher’s conferences–and stays at her elbow, ready to help explain a product or a medical prescription or her progress in school.

Jessica, 11, is her family’s gatekeeper, the main conduit between her Spanish-speaking parents and the English-speaking world. As the eldest child and the most bilingual speaker in the house, she shoulders the responsibility of translating.

“I feel like an adult already,” she says matter-of-factly. “Just a small adult.” Translating at a young age is a common experience in immigrant families, one that helps children gain increased confidence, greater fluency in both languages and a broader knowledge of society. But the cumulative burden of what researchers call “language brokering” also puts children like Jessica in the awkward position of trying to decipher for their parents a world they have barely learned to navigate.

“These kids don’t simply interpret, they act as surrogate parents for themselves and their younger siblings,” said Lucy Tse, an assistant professor of education at Loyola Marymount University who has studied language brokering. “They make adult decisions, sometimes without the benefit of adult sophistication and knowledge.”

Thrust into this grown-up world, many children feel overwhelmed and ill-equipped. The role reversal sometimes causes friction between them and the frustrated parents who rely on them to communicate. Some children resent being drafted into service–called away from their friends and playtime–every time their parents need a translator.

Although the experience of language brokers transcends America’s many waves of immigration, experts are just starting to recognize these pressures. Confronted with a mounting number of non-English speakers, institutions that once relied heavily on children to interpret are altering their policies.

For example, in the Alhambra school district, where about 40% of the 20,000 students translate for their families at home, officials now discourage children from taking on that role at school. Says professor Tse: “We need to better understand how these kids survive.”

Jessica’s family immigrated from Guanajuato, Mexico, when she was 8 months old. Her father, Martin, works as a handyman. Her mother, Dolores, is a cook. Like many working-class immigrants, neither has ever found the time to study English, although Martin bought an English course called Ingles Sin Barreras–”English Without Barriers”–that lines the living room wall of their small Boyle Heights home.

“I understand a little, but I can’t express myself,” Dolores said. “So wherever I go, I take Jessica . . . and I feel secure in what I’m doing.”

Jessica takes it in stride when she has to write a note for her mother to sign, or speak to adults who call for her parents. She admits, though, to often feeling a little lost.

“Like a live dictionary,” she says. “Sometimes I feel nervous because I don’t really understand what something means. I just go, ‘Uh, I’m not really sure.’ I just guess.”

She frets about her family’s finances. Sometimes she gives her parents back her $1.50 allowance to help pay for utilities. Once she felt bad because the water bill was high and she thought it was her fault. Another time she dreamed there was a huge bill and she didn’t know how to pay for it. . . .

Story 4: This story came to me from a woman I’d written about who insisted the paper do a story about a sweet relationship: an 81-year-old florist and his wife. Matea started it this way:

Maybe Bill Williams is right. Maybe he hasn’t done anything all that extraordinary in the last 81 years.

Not his marriage. Nothing special about a 56-year love affair with a woman he still calls “honey” and eyes flirtatiously as she walks across the room.

Or the flower shop he runs out of a dim garage behind his Compton house, where he has spent four decades arranging carnations and roses for celebrations and funerals, creating corsages for proms and graduations.

Or the dozens of kids he’s employed at the shop during the last 40 years, giving them their first job and a friendly ear.

You tell Bill Williams he deserves some praise, and he ducks his head with a vigorous, disapproving shake. You ask him to sum up his life, and he puts it this way: “I’ve made an honest living. I can sleep well at night.”

Longtime residents of Compton tell a different story.

To them, Williams is a rare, living link to a time when neighbors visited each other through gates in their backyard fences and parents kept a watchful eye on each other’s children playing in the street. Williams and his wife, Myrtle, moved to a gray stucco house on 137th Street in Compton in 1951, among the first group of African American families to settle in the area as segregation broke down.

In the 1950s, Bill was working as a janitor at the Bel-Air Country Club when he saw a man arranging ferns for a table centerpiece.

“That’s for me,” he said to himself. No boss to tell you what to do. Good steady work.

He took some flower arranging classes in the evenings at Manual Arts High School and started working for a floral delivery service. Every time he picked up a bouquet or arrangement, he would spend a couple minutes chatting with the florist, learning tricks and techniques.

He opened up a flower shop in his garage in 1958, putting in an old refrigerator to keep the blossoms fresh. Soon the word spread that Bill Williams was in the flower business. In his first week, he did three weddings.

As the business grew, he hired young neighborhood kids to sweep the floor, eventually teaching them how to make flower arrangements and take orders.

What they didn’t realize at the time, they say now, was that in the process Williams was teaching them how to get ahead . . .

Nothing about this story demanded it be published–except for the fact that it allowed the paper to connect with its citizens. The fact that the newspaper devoted the space and time to these stories (none of them were done in a single day) made them effective.

Once you begin strangulating your reporting ranks, you jettison these kinds of stories. You forget about them, and so does much of your audience, who slowly find fewer and fewer compelling reasons to subscribe. Until a clergyman raises the subject indirectly, and catches the attention of your publisher, whose grasp of the dynamics and mechanics of “good” and “bad” news is so unsophisticated that he does not know the very problem he rails against is of his own making.

COMMENT: This comes from a reader who prefers the cloak of anonymity

Of all the rebuttals to cost cutting in the news biz, I think the best I’ve ever heard is your idea here: That cutting back on the staff virtually guarantees cutting back on precisely the type of stories that might attract a broader readership and save the day. I never thought of it like that — and neither, clearly, did the guys in charge. Well, they thought about it to this extent: dollars and cents are black and white, easy to grasp and deceptively easy to work with, while appealing to the hearts and minds of readers is anything but black and white and difficult. The fact that the intersection point between those two is the nexus of the business they’re in is, apparently, little more than an annoyance.

Everywhere I’ve worked, the reality never changes: Whenever a business or a business leader reduces what he faces to just numbers, he fails. Now, if he accepts the fact that his work is about both numbers AND people, he still might fail. But only then do you have even a chance to succeed.

Remember, those four stories you cited in your piece are not only great pieces of journalism, they are great PRODUCTS — products that happen to sit on a shelf that’s made of newsprint.

But it’s not business that’s at fault. You can do it right, you know — and you can do it by simultaneously addressing private and public responsibilities.

Your newspaper execs should take a close look at my hero, Theodore Vail, twice president of AT&T in its formative years and, in the words of uber-business theorist Peter Drucker, “the greatest decision-maker in the history of American business.”

Vail’s ability to play the numbers like a card sharp shuffling a deck while simultaneously communicating a shining vision to the hearts of his employees and the American people is nothing short of genius. When AT&T begged him to come back and save the company in 1907, he looked the board straight in the eyes and told them: “I’m not here to produce an immediate rise in our profits. I’m here to put a telephone into every home in America. And when we do that, the profits will come.” THAT, my friend, is Babe Ruth calling his shot. This was Vail’s great idea: Take this huge business and run it like a government agency — the speed and urgency of a business combined with the sense of public duty of government. The board thought they were electing a new president of the company; Vail saw his job as being president of the entire INDUSTRY. He saw the future.

I’ll bet almost everyone thinks government imposed regulation on the telephone industry? Nope. Vail INVENTED telephone regulation and imposed IT on government and the rest of the industry to protect AT&T! His great sponsor, J. P. Morgan, despised government, as did all the other business leaders of the day, but Vail had come from government — he was the boy genius of the federal government in the early 1870s, single-handedly revolutionizing mail delivery in the U. S. — and refused to give in to robber baron conventional wisdom.

For example: Every one of his VPs told them it was insane to spend hundreds of millions of dollars on his pet project beginning in 1910. I think Vail may have been right in building the world’s first LONG DISTANCE NETWORK, don’t you? And AT&T Long Lines was probably the most profitable business in the world for 75 years after Vail built it.

Anyway, this is what I thought about when I read your piece: Isn’t a newspaper a little like those early telephone companies — both a private company and a public trust?

And if the people running newspapers today don’t think they can balance those two — that seems to be their message, and their alibi — I would point them to Theodore Vail. He faced a challenge a jillion times bigger than they do — and he fundamentally changed his industry, his country and the world. How can you even gauge the social and economic impact of America connecting its citizens by phone DECADES before other countries? Staggering.

The thing is, throughout his career, Vail never surrendered to easy solutions, like the newspaper execs you cite, or averted his eyes from the horizon. If I had to summarize his genius, it was this: Vail always figured it out. No matter what he faced, he sat down, thought about it, and figured it out. He was the greatest figurer outer anybody ever saw. And if he was running a newspaper company today, he would figure it out.

And I guarantee you, the kind of stories you included on your site would be front and center of a newspaper led by the great Theodore Vail.

Uh, I believe I’ve gotten a little worked up here, so I apologize — but doesn’t it seem like this private/public trust issue is the crux of all this? And wouldn’t Vail come in handy?