Final day at the Times

June 1, 2007

Sometime today, 57 reporters, editors, photographers and columnists at the Los Angeles Times will hug their friends goodbye and walk out of the newsroom for the last time.

Each took a buyout offer that dangled up to a year's pay in exchange for a swift departure - the latest desperation move by the paper's owners in Chicago to slash the cost of delivering news the old school way.

You know, printed on dead trees tossed each morning on fewer and fewer Los Angeles driveways.

This will be a bittersweet day for many of these vacating journalists. They strived for years to get to a high ambition, big spending, top tier operation like the L.A. Times. The paper has won more than a dozen Pulitzer Prizes in recent years, but even prize winners are leaving for jobs at the Sierra Club. Or for no job at all.

The departing share a sense of unease about their decision to go, and also probably a case of blind-eyed optimism about the unforeseeable possibilities that could lie ahead.

I know, because seven years ago I was among them.

I worked in the Times building across from City Hall for two decades. I reported on political figures like Tom Bradley, covered disasters and corrupt officials, and edited Pulitzer winning series.

When I began crusty rewrite men still tossed smelly stogies on the city room floor and pounded out ledes on manual Underwoods - often after soaking up midday martinis at the Redwood Saloon.

These days, reporters polish their prose at carpeted pods. They don't shout gossip to colleagues across the room anymore - they email it.

My exit wasn't tied to buyouts or layoffs. Just a better offer for more money and a change of scenery. I left newspapers for the Internet economy, giving up the giant cockroaches that shared my office downtown for a high-tech building in Westwood. I was the top L.A. editor for a weekly news magazine that was hot stuff for fifteen minutes, until the last crash.

Now I write books and chronicle local politics for Los Angeles magazine. Every day I also feed LA, the media and news blog that made my transition out of big newsrooms final.

For most of those leaving the Times, this will be their final day in Big Journalism. If they work in news anymore, it could be for websites they would not have considered two years ago - or last month.

They now belong to a changed media landscape. One of the presidential candidate debates has already been co-sponsored by a website that has no mainstream affiliation. But it has recruited veteran political writers away from the Washington Post.

The Huffington Post also hired a top Washington political editor and this week added Willow Bay, the former CNN and Good Morning America anchor.

For those of us who consume news all day, the trend is up, actually - in some respects.

There are more sources of news available more easily - and at lower cost - than just a few years ago. More varied voices, more unpredictable opinions.

Counting the blogs, you can find more smart minds - and some not so smart - applying their analysis and inflection. That's all to the good.

We need these alternative outlets to flourish - because there is no positive spin to be had in today's farewells at the Times. The money saved in salaries and benefits won't be reinvested in smarter, more creative talent or deeper reporting.

In response to plunging circulation, newspapers keep diluting the richness of the product. Most suburban papers around Los Angeles are already on starvation diets. The Times may have been fat once, but it's not far from shrinking into the print equivalent of Nicole Richie.

And make no mistake, readers notice. I've been buried this week in email from former Times loyalists hungry for added protein. They see less depth, a skinnier sports section, light-weight op-ed pundits, and more factual gaffes about Los Angeles.