Tuesday, March 03, 2009

Los Angeles Times, Sans "California": Day One

LAT machinist Noel Trevino with the now-replaced California section. (Photo by Ed Padgett.)

Today's the day that the L.A. Times rolls its stand-alone California section into the paper's front pages. (The California section continues on Sundays only). The Downtown News laments the loss:

The Times brass is taking the stance that it will continue to do its best to cover Los Angeles, and we're sure the journalists will try. But the fact is, stories that appear inside the A section will be less visible and will have less impact than if they started on the cover of their own section. Additionally, less space will mean fewer articles appear in print.

Equally distressing is the symbolic kick in the face that is being delivered. Killing the stand-alone California section sends the message that local coverage is no longer much of a priority. Times brass will likely argue otherwise, but the chorus of disapproval since the decision became public reveals that people perceive it as such. And as anyone in the media or government can attest, perception is reality.

Meanwhile, "The Wire" creator David Simon, who started out as a cops reporter in Baltimore, writes about what happened recently when a cop shot an unarmed man in that city: It got virtually no coverage. Frustrated at a lack of any reported insight on what happened, Simon decided to make a few calls himself. He discovered that today's newspapers don't have the manpower, the institutional memory or the experience to dig up the news or take on power structures, such as the police, that are trying to suppress information.

What's more, he notes that the supposed future of journalism -- the citizen bloggers -- aren't stepping in to fill that void. An excerpt:

There is a lot of talk nowadays about what will replace the dinosaur that is the daily newspaper. So-called citizen journalists and bloggers and media pundits have lined up to tell us that newspapers are dying but that the news business will endure, that this moment is less tragic than it is transformational.

Well, sorry, but I didn't trip over any blogger trying to find out McKissick's identity and performance history. Nor were any citizen journalists at the City Council hearing in January when police officials inflated the nature and severity of the threats against officers. And there wasn't anyone working sources in the police department to counterbalance all of the spin or omission.

I didn't trip over a herd of hungry Sun reporters either, but that's the point. In an American city, a police officer with the authority to take human life can now do so in the shadows, while his higher-ups can claim that this is necessary not to avoid public accountability, but to mitigate against a nonexistent wave of threats. And the last remaining daily newspaper in town no longer has the manpower, the expertise or the institutional memory to challenge any of it.

At one point last week, after the department spokesman denied me the face sheet of the shooting report, I tried doing what I used to do: I went to the Southeastern District and demanded the copy on file there.

When the desk officer refused to give it to me, I tried calling the chief judge of the District Court. But Sweeney's replacement no longer handles such business. It's been a while since any reporter asked, apparently. So I tried to explain the Maryland statutes to the shift commander, but so long had it been since a reporter had demanded a public document that he stared at me as if I were an emissary from some lost and utterly alien world.

Which is, sadly enough, exactly true.

I sometimes wonder whether I'd still enter journalism in this day and age, given the state of the industry.

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