Back to work

Now that the election is settled, it’s time to put America back to work.

I propose we start with me. And since the Republican wave that swept Democrats from power in the House of Representatives Tuesday and greatly reduced their numbers in the Senate is directly attributable to young people staying away from the polls in droves, I further propose that I get one of their jobs.

I’ve got my eye on one right now at the Los Angeles Times where I worked for 19 years. I’m pretty sure it’s a job I am well-suited for, since it’s the job I used to have. Apparently the fresh-faced, newly-minted graduate they hired as an intern only days after my departure is now on staff and well-regarded. But judging by my positive work reviews, regular promotions and steady raises, that is by no means a qualification for continued employment.

The main qualification is being in the right place at the right time.

Nineteen years ago, I was there. Right there. In the sleepy northern suburban edition enclave of The Times known as The Valley.  I had just come over from the Los Angeles Herald-Examiner, shuttered by the Hearst Corporation for its alleged inability to compete with The Times.

I was a new homeowner. My wife was 5-months pregnant. I had no employment prospects when the Her-Ex closed. The outlook was bleak … for about a couple of hours. Word quickly spread that our cross-town rival was in an expansive mood and was offering jobs with big raises to virtually all the copy and news editors, of which I was one.

Within months of my arrival, the newspaper created an edition for nearby Ventura County and tapped me as its inaugural news editor.  I worked a 10-hour shift, five days a week. Designing 20 columns of space was considered a normal news editor shift at the paper; I averaged around 40. My record was 100 columns for a Sunday paper, with four open color pages. There was no time for meals and no time for breaks. Not infrequently, I would reach the end of the shift wondering, “Wasn’t I dying to go to the bathroom about three hours ago?”

We lived and died by our dicey fax/phone/computer connection to the mothership downtown, 40 miles away. We were inventing our product, a hyperlocalized version of the LAT, as we went along. The pressure was relentless.

In short, it was the BEST … JOB … EVER.

Newspapers are a deadline business, and we took ours with a deadly seriousness. One evening, as we careened toward our 11 p.m. drop-dead cutoff, one barely noticed that there were workmen all around us laying new carpet atop the stripped concrete floors. In order to do so, they first put down a coating of glue which needed to set before final adhesion. What we didn’t notice at all, until too late, was that they had laid down an expanse of glue between the newsroom and the fax machines we used to send our layout dummies downtown to be processed.

There was no time for hesitation. Little time for fear. And less time for common sense. I grabbed my final dummies and headed out, carefully, though decisively, navigating the slippery sea of goo. I made it halfway before my feet slipped out from beneath me, jettisoning my lower torso and legs 90 degrees north and leaving me hovering parallel to the ground, four feet up, before the final plummet to Earth.

I stood up unharmed, covered head to toe in glue, yet determined to march on. But first, I attempted to wipe the glue from my hands and instinctively reached for the closest material nearby: a stack of newspapers. That was wrong. And I learned a valuable lesson. It’s very difficult to type when your hands are covered with newspapers and glue.

But that evening ended the way almost all of our evenings ended. We would sit quietly awaiting the computer message from our production liaison near the presses downtown. Had we sneaked in under the deadline? The margin for error was usually a few minutes, sometimes seconds. We rarely missed. And we always celebrated our success, though some nights were more amenable to high-fives than others.

Those were glory days at the Los Angeles Times. The Chandler family still ran the paper it had founded and like most newspapers it printed money along with the news. But there had always been conflict within the family over control of the empire and as patriarch Otis Chandler distanced himself from its daily operation, high double-digit profit margins and circulation began to slip.

Still, the ’90s were a time of expansion at Times Mirror Co. and in 1995 when Mark Willes was hired to run the parent company, his goal of increasing the newspaper’s circulation 50 percent was met with hopeful enthusiasm, though tempered by a measure of skepticism. What followed was the modern method of corporate profit-generation forged in the flames of the Reagan Revolution. The former General Mills boss, known fondly to his new employees as the Cereal Killer, shed assets, reduced the quality of the product and started laying off people.

He quickly fired more than 2,000 employees and closed the New York City edition of Newsday as well as the evening edition of the Baltimore Sun. He killed the national edition of The Times. Within a year, he cut costs by $232 million.

Expenses plummeted, profits soared and the stock price tripled. Briefly. Over the next five years, the fortunes of the still highly-profitable Times Mirror Co. waned and in 2000 amid a scandal involving undue advertiser influence over editorial content, the Chandler family cashed out.

Tribune Co. made them an offer they couldn’t refuse that amounted to twice the market value of the company. Within hours the stock price doubled and the idiot photographer I worked with, days from retirement, who had defied every sensible financial adviser for years and put all his 401k investment in company stock, became a genius, and a millionaire, overnight.

The Chandlers walked away with billions.

By then, I had been promoted to executive news editor of the Valley and Ventura County editions. Our resources were reduced, but our retooled versions of the downtown edition were responsible for over 20 percent of The Times circulation. We were no longer the golden child, but not yet regarded as a leaden anchor.

The corporate savior best known for its grasp of synergy and utilization of new technology to create innovative cross-platform economies of scale  never before seen  was going to end the rolling layoffs of the past five years and restore stability and sanity.

But almost immediately, everyone at the Los Angeles Times gained new insight into the maxim, “Better the devil you know, than the devil you don’t know.”

From day one, Tribune executives in Chicago battled with their new Times Mirror squires, especially those in Los Angeles. The Times was one of a handful of top-tier newspapers in the nation and the Chicago Tribune, though a fine newspaper, clearly was not. The financial fortunes of Tribune began to ebb and squabbling over dwindling resources escalated.

Two years later Tribune closed the Valley office and sold its presses. The editions were allowed to linger as faux zoned editions with few if any editorial changes. Eventually, they were scrapped entirely along with the larger Orange County edition that serviced the community south of Los Angeles. Layoffs continued apace. Seemingly every three or four months there would be a blood-letting.

In April 2007 billionaire Sam Zell bought Tribune. Another savvy savior had arrived. How smart is Sam Zell? He had entered the radio biz just after its deregulation and accumulated a string of stations that eventually became the behemoth Clear Channel; he cashed out of that and bought real estate which he eventually sold for $34 billion (that’s a “B”).

Like all smart guys he knows how to take big risks with other people’s money. He bought the $7.6 billion Tribune with $300 million of his own money. The rest of the inflated purchase was financed with new debt. Banksters, bond salesmen, hedge fund investors, lawyers, Tribune executives and witch doctors conjured up an innovative structure centered around an Employee Stock Ownership Plan that allowed everyone involved to make huge sums of money up front while the company pretended to be owned by its employees and avoided most taxes.

The result: a crushing debt load of $13 billion. That’s $13 billion that ended up in someone else’s pocket.

A year later, the company was in bankruptcy. It’s been there for two years and has just experienced a major escalation of legal hostilities. It’s not the longest bankruptcy in history (that may be the maker of Hostess Twinkies, which was ensnarled for five years), but with four separate restructuring plans before the court, it may be the most convoluted.

And through it all, the Los Angeles Times remains a quality newspaper. And profitable. But we’ll never know how good it could have been if its owners hadn’t cut the staff in half, abandoned its suburban and inner-city subscribers, outsourced its circulation department to a foreign country, failed to establish a functional sales force, prostituted its news pages to advertisers and hired hacks to run the place.

Newspapers are always dying, and someone is always killing them. Radio was supposed to bury them. So was television. So was their aging readership. So was USA Today. So was the Internet.

David Plotz, Slate Magazine

So were their liberal reporters, elitist editors and insular management.

Turns out, though, it was pirates that done the deed. They boarded the ship in the middle of the night. Raped, robbed and pillaged. Then snuck away with their ill-gotten gain. OK. That’s not fair. It’s technically not ill-gotten.

No one has been formally accused of a crime, although one of two complaints filed in bankruptcy court against Zell, et al has a damning admission of guilt from one of the buyout engineers: “This is like carrying a fat person up Everest, hopefully it doesn’t kill us.”

Each successive wave of new owners and management that engulfed my newspaper swept to power behind a mandate for change. They would listen to the people and give them what they wanted. And what they wanted was a quality product that reflected their interests and values, took advantage of technological innovation and provided more value for their dollar.

What they got were pirates.

Tuesday, for the first time in a long time, I watched the midterm elections from home, not the newsroom. I saw a grassroots revolt, seized with the fervor of reform; people trying to retake government from forces who they felt did not truly represent them. While I don’t share many of their values, I too would like a government that wasn’t owned by special interests, protected us from forces of evil, reflected our core values and didn’t blow our money.

What we got, I fear, are pirates.

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