Romenesko Misc.
Los Angeles Times environmental editor Geoff Mohan complained to New York Times public editor Arthur Brisbane and others about NYT's claim that the LA daily has "lost its standing at home." Brisbane tells Mohan: "For my money, the story would have been better had it included language that more clearly tried to separate the paper's journalism from the critique of its owners and the premise that LA itself is slipping in stature."

From: nytimes, public
Sent: Wednesday, January 26, 2011 2:29 PM
To: Mohan, Geoffrey
Subject:.

Thanks for your message concerning The Times story on the Los Angeles Times. I received a number of emails from readers who expressed concern about this story. I queried the editor who was responsible for it, who provided the following points in response to reader concerns:

The thrust of the piece was that Los Angeles residents associate the LA Times with a period when great cultural and business institutions were owned and operated out of the city itself. While the example of having no NFL team might have seemed superficial, it did come up in interviews frequently and it is the case that the headquarters of numerous large companies have left the area in recent years and, as well, that the conglomerates owning the Hollywood studios lack deep roots in Los Angeles. The editor referred me to a piece that reports on how the studios favor international charities now over local ones.

The editor asserted also that the premise of the piece was supported by actual circulation decline and deep cuts to news staff. He added that the reporter, Jeremy Peters, illustrated the story with quotes from three people but that there were many more in his notebook and that the published quotes were representative.

Peters, he said, worked hard to get official comment from within the newspaper and within Tribune but was rebuffed.

The editor acknowledged that the story should have mentioned the LA's web traffic. But he added that the story wasn't trying to suggest that "the paper itself was the problem" and supported that statement by pointing out that the reporter took pains to point out examples of the paper's robust reporting of foreign and local news. He said the piece looked at how the combination of out-of-town ownership and drastic cuts had left many in the city with an impression that was out-of-step with the quality of the paper itself.

So that takes care of the editor's response to reader complaints. For my part, I can appreciate why some readers felt this story was unfair. The distinction made by the editor -- that the story was more about readers' perception of the LA Times as distinct from the LA Times journalistic performance -- was largely lost on me. I read it as a critique of the paper, and so did many others. I think this impression was reinforced by quotes in the story from John Carroll, a former editor, who seemed to pine for the days when the paper had massive zoning operations, the loss of which one might reasonably view as a reduction in quality of coverage.

Also, in the manner in which the article focused on the LA Times's use of front page advertising, one might infer that the paper is slipping. Again, the distinction that this is a change wrought by the owners, as opposed to the LA Times itself, is a fine one that some readers might be forgiven for missing.

Finally, my larger concern is that the NY Times swings a heavy bat when it puts itself in the position of judging another newspaper -- which is how this piece came across. For my money, the story would have been better had it included language that more clearly tried to separate the paper's journalism from the critique of its owners and the premise that LA itself is slipping in stature. In addition, it's the kind of story that, given its implications, could have used more language -- and descriptions of evidence -- to support its premises.

Again, thanks for your message.

Art Brisbane
public editor