I was making my way back from Hemet, where I had just met with the
family of a soldier killed in Iraq, when I thought about my
colleague Doug Smith.
Smith, a Times scribe for 36 years, was on his third volunteer tour
of duty reporting from Iraq. I know it's tough on his wife, Jackie,
when he's away, so I called her at the Smith home in Pasadena to
Jackie had just gotten off the phone with Doug, and
there was nervous relief in her voice. He had been out of touch for
a while, embedded with American troops. As it turned out, he'd been
riding in an armored vehicle when the troops he was with came under
fire. They were OK, Smith reassured his wife, and he'd be home soon.
I suggested we chain Doug to his desk next time he puts his hand up
for combat duty. Jackie liked the idea, but she knew it wouldn't
fly. She understands why her husband keeps returning to Iraq.
There's no glory in it and no hazardous duty pay, but there's
something more elemental.
"He thinks it's important for someone to be there and tell the
story," she said.
I share this because newspapers do a lousy job of telling you what
you get for two quarters on weekdays and a buck-fifty on Sunday.
This paper's latest ad, in which prospective customers pause at a
news rack and peer at the paper but can't seem to figure out whether
to buy it, is so bad that whoever created it should be locked out of
A good ad would tell you that Smith is under fire in Iraq, that T.J.
Simers may soon come to blows with a Dodger or Laker, that Robin
Abcarian's takes on local culture and celebrity are smart and sassy,
that Dan Neil is on the Santa Monica Freeway test-driving another
car, that George Skelton has explained everything on the California
ballot with clarity and nary a hint of partisanship and that the
coupons alone will cover the cost of dinner.
As you might have heard, the newspaper industry is struggling to
figure out how to maintain readership and ad revenue as the business
shifts to the Internet. And yet the geniuses who run the industry
are loath to kick even 5% of their still-robust profits into telling
you why you ought to buy a paper or check one out online.
The Times is my seventh newspaper. Before this job, I traveled
around the country writing a column for Time magazine, and I read
lots of newspapers. Trust me, we have one of the best in the
My boss at Time advised me not to take the job here. The Times has
hurdles like no other publication, he warned, because not only are
there 88 towns in L.A. County alone, but if you asked 100 people to
design a paper to fit their own needs, you'd get 100 different
I took the job for that reason. I wanted the challenge of trying to
connect in a sprawling polyglot metropolis that's unconventional,
ever-evolving and defiantly resistant to simple definitions. Though
a newspaper can't be all things to all people, The Times searches
out stories of universal local appeal and tries to craft national
and international coverage to regional interests.
We can still do better in many ways. We should have developed the
website more quickly. We need to connect in creative ways with more
readers, and fast.
Unfortunately, greatness and ambition don't come on the cheap,
something newspaper owners don't seem to get. In my 5 1/2 years
here, two publishers and two editors who believed staff cuts were
bad for business were pushed off the roof.
Those of us who are still here have a message for the brain trust in
Chicago — or for any of the local billionaires itching to buy the
Even the most old-school curmudgeons among us know we've got to
learn new tricks and do more with less if the newspaper business is
going to thrive again. But the bones of this operation are still
pretty strong, and severing limbs won't do the journalism or the
bottom line any good.
I work in an office that's neat as a landfill, poorly lighted and so
cramped that reporters and editors can hear one another breathe.
Ken Weiss works near me, a local native who, along with Usha
McFarling and Rick Loomis, spent long days and nights — more than a
year — reporting a groundbreaking series on the decline of the
I'm a few feet away from Charlie Ornstein and Tracy Weber, who
barely took a breath after their expose of King/Drew Medical Center
before moving on to an alarming series on organ transplants. And
they share a work area with Cara Mia DiMassa, who has owned the
story of downtown L.A.'s changing face.
I feel like a laggard when I see Joel Rubin and Howard Blume rush in
from interviews and call out to each other as they coordinate daily
stories on the revolutionary changes in the Los Angeles Unified
Whether it's Ron Brownstein on the president, Kim Murphy on Russia,
Megan Stack covering the war in Lebanon or Iraq, Stephanie Simon
reporting religion and culture with scrupulous neutrality, Jason
Felch and Ralph Frammolino getting inside the disastrously run
Getty, David Zucchino following wounded soldiers back home from
Afghanistan and Iraq, Patt Morrison slicing and dicing, Bob Pool
filing sublime snapshots of the city, Tom Hamburger and Peter
Wallsten breaking political stories in Washington or Bill Plaschke
digging for a local sports angle no one else thought of, there is
personality and purpose in every edition, and it costs less than a
cup of joe.
I don't know anyone at The Times who doesn't consider it a privilege
to come into your kitchens each morning with news from around the
corner and around the world.
Getting back to Doug Smith, he got home safely from his latest
storytelling in Iraq and immediately returned to work on a local
investigative project. He is the son, by the way, of the late Times
columnist Jack Smith.
In his own quiet and dignified way, Doug has built a career as
distinguished as that of his famous father, unwaveringly loyal to
the story, to tradition and, most important, to you.