"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.
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."
At times over the past decade and a half, Phebus has booked the Coach House, Galaxy and Sun theaters, the Doheny Days and other festivals, and this year's OC Fair. "The killer for me was that our main stage was called the LATimes.com stage, with their name splashed all over it, and the paper couldn't be bothered giving the acts even a fraction of the editorial coverage they used to devote to shows in the county. It's still incredibly expensive to buy an ad in the Sunday Calendar section, and why should anyone bother if they're not going to cover or support the local scene? They've abandoned us."
In better days, he said, the Coach House had to bring in extra staff on Thursdays to handle the spike in ticket sales resulting from articles in the OC Live section. It isn't a newspaper's job to help a venue hawk tickets, but those tickets sales were an indicator that the paper was doing its job: informing the public, critiquing and nurturing the scene, and helping to link the arts and the public in something that might be considered a community.
You never knew where the Times OC's efforts would take root. The now long-gone art critic Cathy Curtis, we were surprised to learn, had a small but avid fan base of firemen, who would post her more acidic reviews on the stationhouse wall.
"The Times previously seemed to recognize that the 3 million people living here deserve coverage," Phebus said. "They really nurtured the local scene, and I think that's part of the reason why local bands eventually made it onto the national charts. Pulling the plug on that has hurt the scene. And I'm not just talking about their positive reviews. At points, I was buying something like 1,000 shows per year and scarcely had the opportunity to listen to all of it. I counted on the Times telling me if I was booking crap. That perspective is just gone now."
According to one local arts personage, a Times figure has let it drop "unofficially" that county arts groups henceforth shouldn't expect any features coverage unless a performance is of "national" importance. The summer is the off-season for the arts, so the organizations won't see how dire this might be until the fall.
Not that it can get much worse.
The Times OC's dearth of support "is something that comes up a lot with all the arts marketing people I know," said Karen Drews, director of communications for the Irvine Barclay Theatre. "It has put us in a real bind because the Times did such a great job of selling the Calendar section as the place to go for arts coverage, that when people look there now and don't see our events covered, they assume the events are not happening. I know that will effect the smaller arts organizations, some of whom do very fine work."
Sandy Robertson, associate director of the Philharmonic Society of Orange County, takes a more Nietzschean "that which doesn't kill me makes me stronger" slant.
"Because of the changes [in the Times' coverage] we have to see ourselves as players in a larger picture now. We need to understand that people—whether it's a critic or a concertgoer—make choices about the art that interests them in a larger area. It used to be that the Times OC would cover something just because it was in OC. Now the decisions on what gets covered are determined in LA. The burden is on us now to make it a story for them. If you're doing the nth production of the Phantom, you're not going to get coverage."
One Timescritic acknowledges, "Some of the things we wrote about before were honestly marginal. We had the space and the obligation to fill the space."
For Randy Lewis, one of few Calendar writers remaining in OC, "The changes make sense, in that for a long time, we tried to be everything to everybody down to the microscopic level, and we realistically can't be everything. What is sad to me, though, is to see us disconnect from the grassroots level. The loss there is that we won't necessarily be aware of things—bands or whatever—until they break out, as opposed to maybe being there to help them break."
If one must err when it comes to news, it would seem that too much is better than virtually none.
"The emphasis used to be on giving the readers the best paper we could," said former editor Page. "I understand shrinking budgets, but you can't half-heartedly cover the arts. When you're covering something that's all about passion and taking chances and giving your best, that's what you also need to cover it. Otherwise, why bother?"
Page left the Times in 1997, before things soured, and she has nothing but fond memories of the place. She's now in Boston, working on a novel and doing film reviews for the Boston Globe, where former Times OC editor Marty Baron is now head honcho and where, even while at the forefront of covering Sept. 11 and the priest-molestation scandals, the paper has recently given a dramatic boost to its arts and entertainment coverage.
One person in the arts community maintains, "The Times should at least let readers know they're not going to be covering the arts in Orange County anymore, so their readers can look elsewhere."
How about it, Times? Are you up for doing one of those sprawling bits of introspective soul-searching the paper so excels at whenever it disappoints its readers? What will you say to a region of nearly 3 million people when you've got scarcely more reportage on them than the Pennysaver does?
It was such a very slow attrition that one barely noticed the Times OC's shift from full armada to ghost ship. The previously cited Registereditor admits to a certain envy at the accomplishment: "As best as I can tally it, they cut their newsroom at least by half, and it didn't cost them much circulation."
No one thing was responsible for the change. Probably the main factor was that through the late 1990s, a series of industry-wide economic downturns—hikes in newsprint cost, department store chains and other major advertisers going out of business—caused the Times to reassess the money it was pouring into its Vietnam-like circulation war with the Register. The Times just gave up trying, which at least makes it easier for countians to eat dinner without being interrupted by subscription calls now.
The Times Mirror Corporation also got a new CEO in 1995, Mark Willes, previously the head of General Mills, where his cost- and job-slashing tactics earned him the nickname the Cereal Killer. Sure enough, Willes instituted rounds of layoffs and buy-outs at the Times, and they were none too kind, as the job market was already glutted with journalists from the just-closed New York Newsday and eclipsed evening edition of the Baltimore Sun, both also victims of Willes' management style.
Willes named himself publisher of the Times in 1997, where his chief contribution to journalism was to bulldoze the longstanding wall between the newsroom and the business and marketing sides of the paper. Soon, marketing people were allowed to help shape the paper's news content. The grandest example was the Times' special magazine section on the opening of the Staples Center, in which the Times gushed over the wonderfulness of the center, with which it was soon discovered that the Times had a secret profit-sharing deal. You might recall lots of ink was spent in soul-searching after that one.
The Staples fiasco had no direct impact on the Times OC, aside from sending morale deeper into the toilet. The Willes era's contribution to the county was the Orange County supersection, in which everything OC was crammed into Section Two of the paper. Or almost everything. If an event in OC was moving on to LA, then the coverage would jump to the Calendar section, and you had to look for movie reviews and show times in two different parts of the paper, and people basically just stopped looking altogether.
"It was when we started that god-awful supersection that we really started hearing protests of arts organizations' box offices falling off," said one Times staffer. "Before that, an advance story meant sales for them. We were still doing the advances, but they were buried back in the supersection, and no one saw them."
Media mergers are generally bad news for employees, but when it was announced in March 2000 that the Tribune Co., owner of the Chicago Tribune, was buying Times Mirror, the mood in the newsroom was already so low that almost any change was welcome. "We had people who knew nothing about newspapers running the paper," said one former editor, "so how could it get worse?"
The Tribune Co. killed the supersection, but they've also been killing off the Orange County newsroom. Instead of running stories no one could find, you can't find anyone to write them now, since much of the staff has been laid off or redeployed. The handful of arts and features writers remaining report to LA. Photographers who once worked the OC beat now don't know from day to day if they'll be sent to Ensenada or Encino.
Even Ann Conway, the queen of OC society-page columnists, mainly covers LA gatherings these days. This may be the strangest of the Times' retreats from the county, since, as a Register editor maintains, "The one area where the Times aced our circulation was with the monied Newport arts and society crowd. They looked at the Times as practically the official record of their doings." Can't they at least make the richpeople here happy?
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There are other changes afoot at the Trib-owned Times, not all necessarily bad (they've recently hired longtime Weekly film critic Manohla Dargis). But you can bet that executives in Chicago don't devote much of their day to thinking about Orange County. Their effort is being expended on yet another redesign of the paper.
In practice, that generally means less focus on journalism and serving the community, and more on graphics and window-dressing. Among the changes being considered, one hears, is killing the daily Southern California Living features section and converting the Sunday Calendar from its tabloid format to a broadsheet.
Whatever the changes are, don't count on your opinion mattering. The Times conducted focus groups last month in which they tried out some of their pending redesign on normal folks like you and me. Except none of them wereyou and me because none of these focus groups was convened anywhere near the county that once mattered so much to the Times.
With the looming prospect that the Hoiles family might sell off Freedom Communications, including the flagship Register, to the highest bidder, there is the potential that there may soon be less of a local voice in our daily papers than at any time previous. All of the local identity OC has established since rising from the citrus groves—the Top 10 bands, the wacko congressmen, the surfwear industry, the world's largest municipal bankruptcy, the performing-arts centers, the fish-taco empires—all will be for naught, as some distant corporate overlords consign us again to bedroom-community status. We'll be our little secret.