My relationship with my Los Angeles Times subscription is extremely contentious. Three times in the past six months, I have called up and cancelled the paper (you get an operator in Manila--much of the old circulation department has been outsourced), only to reconsider a few days later and restart my subscription.
When I don't take the Times, I feel guilty. I worked there for eight years. I still contribute pieces regularly. It's my hometown paper. But then I get the paper, read it, and start the day angry. There's nothing in the paper that enrages me. The articles are professionally done. No, my rage is from what I don't see, all the stories that aren't there any longer.
This is the daily tragedy of all the layoffs and buyouts and departures at U. S. newspapers and magazines. You can count up the journalists who have left the profession and are out of work, but much of the carnage of the ongoing media industry can't be measured or seen: corruption undiscovered, events not witnessed, tips about problems that never reach anyone's ears because those ears have left the newsroom. With fewer watchdogs, you get less barking. How can we know what we'll never know?
What stories are we missing? I can answer that question only for myself, thinking of my life with my hometown paper.
Gone is the stuff my neighbors and relatives read, the straightforward news about their local communities, particularly in the suburban counties that ring Los Angeles, a county of ten million people and 88 cities. A decade ago, the Times fielded more than a dozen reporters in the some of the county's larger cities. Dozens more toiled in the big, growing areas that border L.A.--Ventura, Riverside, San Bernardino, Orange. Yes, those writers were young and green. Yes, they missed things, as inexperienced reporters do. But they were there. They watched council meetings and school board meetings and county supervisors meetings. They called the cops. They looked at court filings. The most ambitious dug deeply into problems of transportation and development.
But those places were among the first to face cuts, even before the Tribune Company took over the paper in 2000. Where dozens of reporters once worked, only small skeleton crews remain. There are fewer checks. Fewer meetings are witnessed. Fewer records are reviewed.
It's not just the small and the routine that have been lost. I think of my Times ending, in the Washington bureau last spring, which at the time had more than 30 reporters, including a dedicated investigative team, and a full cadre of reporters covering all the big issues (immigration, labor, economics, health, etc.). Now the policy reporters and investigators are nearly all gone. Only a dozen reporters remain, and the paper no longer has its own Washington bureau (there's a combined Washington office for all the Tribune newspapers). Among the departed are Times reporters who first reported the identity (and suicide) of the anthrax suspect, uncovered corruption in contracting in Iraq, discovered several ways in which relatives of members of Congress were profiting from their political connections, and broke the initial stories that led to the federal investigation and downfall of Senator Ted Stevens of Alaska.
I think of my Times middle years, when I commuted between L.A. and Sacramento to cover a movie-star governor. The Capitol bureau was so full it was hard to find an empty desk. I'd confer with the bureau chief, who constantly dispensed solid news tips and sniffed out corruption. (She'd personally ended the career of a state insurance commissioner who appeared to be on his way to bigger things.) I'd pick the brains of the reporter who covered California's criminally overcrowded prisons and the legislative reporter who would expose an Assembly speaker's habit of using campaign funds to live the high life. I'd spend hours reporting stories with my two colleagues on the Arnold beat. But it's four years later, and all those colleagues have taken buyouts or departed for other gigs. In fact, I can think of only a handful of reporters who have produced major investigative or narrative work in the Times in the past ten years and remain.
To be sure, some of these journalists continue to work in other media organizations, at non-profits, or in academia. Local papers cover the smaller cities and suburban counties of Southern California, and there's fine coverage of Washington in the Post and Sacramento in the Bee. And, even when newspapers were flush, on many big stories--Iraq, sub-prime mortgages--our watchdogs in the press either didn't bark or barked too late.
But none of that replaces what's been lost. I think of my last seat in the Times' main Los Angeles newsroom, a slice of fraying carpet and old newspapers extending a city block between 1st and 2nd Streets downtown. I had a desk on the south side of metro, a bit of newsroom real estate that was fabulously remote--out of sight of the editors on the desk. It was still metro, but far enough away that it felt like another country. We called the place Baja Metro.
My desk was one of a half-dozen pushed together. By the time I arrived in 2006, after a book leave and with a new beat--labor--two of the six desks were vacant. The down-cycle of buyouts and layoffs was already under way.
Newspapers are being replaced, it's often said, but how could you replace my three Baja Metro neighbors? Connie Kang, to my left, was the rare reporter who spoke Korean, and she produced stories from that community that no one else in the room could have attempted. Greg Krikorian, sitting directly across from me, had the courthouses and law-enforcement agencies wired, and he reported powerfully and skeptically on terrorism prosecutions.
In the desk to my right, Henry Weinstein, the legal-affairs reporter, had a base of sources that he'd built over 30 years. He wrote crisp dailies about court decisions while digging out deeper stories all over the state and country--about backlogs in processing DNA samples, a federal judge who was abusing his power, a Texas defense lawyer who slept during a murder case. When I mentioned that a high-ranking appellate judge had a role in a story I was pursuing, Henry gave me his cell phone number. The judge balked at my first couple questions before I mentioned that Henry had told me to call him. The judge then talked my ear off.
Henry is gone, of course. So are my other Baja neighbors. Those left behind in the newsroom have more breaking news to handle, and less time to follow their noses. I felt this dynamic myself, a nagging sense that my work was having less impact, that I was slipping. Last spring, while I was covering the presidential campaign, another opportunity opened up, and I took it.
Today's Times carries plenty of fine news stories: about the federal stimulus package, the state budget mess, local crime, the octuplets born in Bellflower, a couple business features, and the Oscars. But there are few stories that show deep digging, that took more than a couple days to put together. And there's other news. The Times has announced it will no longer publish a Metro section. The local news will be pushed into other parts of the paper. Management has begun yet another round of buyouts and layoffs--70 people in editorial alone. Each departure means we'll know less.
I can't live without my hometown paper, but I hate living with it. I look at the phone, and wonder if it's time again to call Manila.
Joe Mathews is an Irvine senior fellow at the New America Foundation.
By Joe Mathews