A Times Obituary

When did the Times OC become the Times DOA?

"There was an awful smell of decay and rot."

That's a Los Angeles Times staffer recalling his first visit back into the Times OC newsroom following an April 21 flood, when a ruptured pipe rendered the building uninhabitable, as it has been for the past three months. Such scant staff as remains of the once 200-strong OC newsroom has been working out of three squat gray trailers in the parking lot or the paper's downtown LA headquarters. It was only this past week that staffers were scheduled to move back into the building.

While flooring, drywall and equipment have been replaced, the decay and rot are there to stay. All that really remains of the Times OC is the name writ large on the building, a headstone for a paper that has been slouching toward the grave for years now.

Yeah, I know, here we go ragging on the Timesagain, but the situation has moved beyond that now because there is scarcely a Times OC left to rag upon. What was once almost certainly the best regional edition of any American newspaper—robustly covering everything that moved or didn't in the county—now often has less space devoted to OC news than a Fry's ad occupies.

Some Times editors seem to be in a curious denial about this. Not long ago, I asked one personage about the paper's abandonment of music coverage in OC. He insisted they were running as many stories as ever, when to anyone with eyes, it was apparent they were covering fewer events in a week than they used to in the average day six years ago.

While the casket's brass may not choose to see it, the changes aren't lost on the competition.

According to a veteran Orange County Register editor, "The Times is nowhere near the factor for us that it was a few years ago. They've gutted the staff, and the editors are mainly in LA now. They have some good reporters, and they're still quite capable of kicking the shit out of us on a good day, but they have very few good days because the talent is stretched so thin.

"That results in less wear on my internal organs, but it's a bad thing for us because when you're the only paper in town, you become the sleepy little engine that couldn't. There's more languor, less of the zeal and concern for getting a story that the job demands, which isn't good for the readership. If you're the only paper and you miss a story, who's going to know? It is a great motivator having another paper there to rub your face in the story if you miss it."

When I was at the Registerin the 1980s, we felt like we were in the trenches, being fired at from the Times' superior position on high. This was despite the reality that the Register's circulation creamed the Times, the Register's writers scooped them as often as not, and much of the public had the same impression held by the Reg's staff: that the Times was a haughty carpetbagger with no real claim to the county. There was no mistaking this in the Register's marketing campaign of the period: "We're on Orange County's side."

But if the trench analogy might be dug further, our editors were like French generals ordering us to our deaths, obsessed only with the Times. You could write four features to your Times counterpart's one, and if his one happened to be about something different from your four, you could be pretty sure you'd be called on the mat. It didn't matter that you'd written about four things they hadn't because the Times was God with a gold toupee, and their writer's opinion trumped yours.

And that was before the competition heated up. Along with keeping Reg writers on their toes, credit the Times with improving the working conditions at 625 N. Grand. During my tenure, editor Chris Anderson instituted informal give-and-take meetings with the staff. It was a short-lived idea, as staffers kept asking questions about when they might expect a decent wage or basic benefits, such as a retirement plan (all of which our Timescounterparts had). After enough of these questions were lobbed, Anderson said, with finality, "Look, we're not a destination newspaper."

The inference was that they didn't care much about keeping us there; we were merely cogs the Register could easily replace if we left. Not surprisingly, people did start leaving. After several turned up with jobs at the Times, and once the competition between the papers boiled over and good writers were at a premium, the Register started offering benefits to its staffers and spreading the workload to new hires.

The Times, meanwhile, had long been nicknamed "the Velvet Coffin" for its well-cared-for tenured employees. Even as a freelancer at the Times OC in the late '80s and early '90s, you could make a hell of a living, at least by freelancers' Dinty Moore standards. And you could generally be proud at the same time because the paper made a difference in the county.

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