By Peter Maguire
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Whether it was the money-and-youth engorged demographic the county offered (OC households average $10,000 more annual income than the state average) or the not-unrelated circulation war the Times waged with the Register, it made for some great, amply funded newspapering.
Along with an "Orange County" section packed with local stories, letters and editorials, OC-related stories routinely ran on A1. Local sports were generously covered down to the prep level. The features section brimmed with OC authors, crackpots and society doings.
It was in the Times OC's now mud-swept confines that legendary entertainment editor Tony Lioce (a man who is to journalism what buccaneering is to sailing, and we all gladly served under his flag) once stood and pronounced, "We will look back on this as our Camelot."
The occasion was the January 1993 farewell ceremony for Times OC editor Carol Stogsdill, on her way to Los Angeles. I don't know that many of us were cognizant of it being Camelot at the time. If you ever achieve Nirvana and hear a claque of souls bitching about the lousy prana there, that will be the journalists, never content, always feeling beset, always suspicious of authority. Stogsdill's nickname among the staff was "Big Nurse," and many weren't better enamored of her predecessor, Narda Zacchino (who had overseen the grand expansion of the OC edition), nor her replacement, Marty Baron.
We didn't know how good we had it. Whatever their perceived faults then, they were newspaper people who cared about putting out a paper that made a difference.
"The understanding then was that our ideal was the New York Times—to make the LA Times as good as that, and to make the OC edition the best local paper on top of that. There's obviously a big change in philosophy today," said Janice Page, who from 1990 to 1997 was assistant arts and entertainment editor, as well as editor of OC Live.
Page headed the creation of the Thursday OC Live section, a vital, readable arts-devoted tabloid that you'd scarcely believe was the template for today's moribund Weekend Calendar section (which this past week regaled its OC readers with the pleasures of shopping malls in Pasadena and Sherman Oaks).
Page recalled, "When I asked Carol Stogsdill what my budget was, she said to let her worry about that, to not feel hampered by a budget, just to make the section as good as it could be. The sky was the limit to put out the best damn newspaper we could, and then we expanded on that, adding more pages and features."
In a recent Friday Calendar, the sole OC-flagged piece was a five-paragraph drama review on page 32. Contrast that with the OC daily Calendar of old, where it wasn't unknown for the first three pages to be entirely devoted to local coverage.
The county music scene in particular was documented with a bulldog tenacity by Mike Boehm. Along with giving serious coverage and critiques of fresh locals, the OC edition also championed touring acts ignored by the downtown "paper of record" crew busy pursuing that month's "compelling, commanding" act. It's hip to write about Arthur Lee now; the Times OC was doing it years ago. Richard Thompson might be one of the most literate, thoughtful songwriters extant, but in the years that the Times OC did five interviews with him, the LA Times did none. Since the OC edition also carried most of what LA generated, it was a packed paper.
The popular music coverage was scarcely more rigorous than any of the other arts reporting, and the same held true in news, business and sports reporting. I focus here on arts and entertainment because that's the area I lurked in, but you can assume that orange-tinted glow pervaded the whole paper. It was Camelot, after all.
It's all gone now, buried without a funeral. A skeleton crew remains, doing the best it can, but despite the "Orange County Edition" emblazoned on the masthead, the Times has become the Unipaper, with no particular love for, or emphasis on, OC.
Recently, for example, the Times did no features on the acts playing the Orange County Fair, despite a lineup that demonstrated the fair's commitment to improving its entertainment. The fair also devoted a large second stage to presenting local acts, as well as singer/songwriters such as David Garza and an ambitious blues fest. And the notion of John Hammond howling Tom Waits songs right off the midway of the county fair is some kind of news.
The extent of the Times' Fair-entertainment coverage was a curt listing of the acts when they were announced, buried in the gutter of page 19 of Calendar. Instead, OC readers recently got to read a far-more-prominent article about dress-code changes at the Ventura County Fair. Maybe readers will stop at the mall in Sherman Oaks on the way up.
"I've lost all respect for the LA Times because I think it's lost respect for us," said longtime talent buyer/concert promoter Ken Phebus. "I've been in Orange County my entire life, and the Times has been my paper since I was little kid running out to pick it up in the driveway. It's what I'd look to for music and entertainment, and I hate that those days are over."