NYT public editor responds to complaint about LAT story

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

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

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  • Anonymous

    The original Times story was so lacking in basic journalistic quality that it sets one to wonder which paper is more diminished. And the reader could tell from the start that was going to happen, beginning with the incredibly snobbish and simplistic–if not downright false–assertion that L.A. is alaways trying to prove it is sophisticated even though it is really a superficial “silicone” sort of place. They really let reporters get away with that kind of garbage?

    I agree bigtime with Jill-Marie that John Carroll was the primary force behind dismantling those full bureaus he now seems to admire so much, and stripping them of the autonomy that allowed them to be responsive to their readers. Of course the L.A. Times has been downsized and is not the paper it once was. And I’m sure many people in the Los Angeles area are upset about it, though the story did a poor job of actually backing up its premise. But before we get too damp-eyed about the good old John Carroll days, let’s remember that the L.A. Times has done more investigative work in the past year alone than it did during the entire Carroll-Baquet regime. And that the paper’s leadership during that time undervalued local reporting. Now it has to pick its spots more….but it picks them pretty darn well.

    The Times used to be a turgid old paper with a ridiculous number of ridiculously long, boring stories written more for the writers and for prize committees than for reader edification and enjoyment. It’s now gone too far in the other direction. Yes, the newsroom has been cut and the paper probably needs more people, but it used to be stuffed with underproducing journalists. Twice the number of people did not mean twice the quality.

    The NY Times story, though, was deficient in other regards as well. Any story that seeks to knock another paper should be up front about its own role. I hear from my NY friends that the NY Times coverage of the ‘burbs has fallen off terribly, and that it never came close to what the A Times used to offer. The NY Times is also on a big national push to gain readership in California; the story should have noted that. That push doesn’t make it wrong for the paper to write the piece, but it does need to get the potential biases out there. It’s also susprising to me that the story wasn’t about the poor old San Francisco Chronicle, a paper that fell from circulation of more than 600,000 just a few years ago to about 240,000 now. By the way, Leo Wolinsky, also quoted in the story, was let go from the newspaper; he didn’t just “leave” it; he’s hardly an objective observer.

  • Anonymous

    One could make the argument that the New York Times took a big hit in the stature department after closing down their New York based news service operation and outsourcing it to India…I mean Gainesville FL.

  • Anonymous

    As a longtime reporter for the Los Angeles Times, and a former New Englander, I’m looking forward to the New York Times doing a comparable piece on how Bostonians feel about their much-diminshed paper, the Globe, and to what degree they blame the absentee ownership.

  • Anonymous

    Here’s a NYT piece on Mr. Carroll’s departure from the Los Angeles Times, and the slash-and-burn budget cutting demanded by Tribune at the time. It was only the beginning of the demise of the Los Angeles Times.

    “This spring, Mr. Carroll and Mr. Baquet, 48, went through a particularly grueling round of budget negotiations with corporate executives. News executives close to Mr. Carroll said that he and Mr. Baquet had proposed a budget plan that involved some newsroom cuts that the two could live with but were not as deep as Chicago wanted. Tribune rejected the plan, these executives said.”

  • http://pulse.yahoo.com/_EGEBK7VC62OOY7BT42NF57BVSY Jill-Marie

    I can’t help but be both amused and infuriated by John Carroll’s comments in the original piece and referred to again in the NYT public editor’s reponse. He makes it sound as if he decries the loss of the excellent zoned editions of the LAT when it was Mr. Carroll HIMSELF who set about summarily executing them. Hindsight is a wonderful gift, isn’t it?

  • Anonymous

    Kudos to Art Brisbane for finding the story lacking. Really — the message the story was trying to send was all but incomprehensible. As a collection of random quotes going nowhere this story needed a tough edit and didn’t get one. My friend Steve Padilla would have called it a “story kit.” Do people in LA think their paper isn’t as good as before? Sure. As do people in NY, Boston, Philly, Chicago, Fresno and yes, Bakersfield. The LAT is still in the top 3 or 4 nationally and doesn’t need the NYT to prove or disprove that. It’s a fact. John Arthur