Tag Archives: Los Angeles Times

Some reflections on the life of Steve Burgard

Steve Burgard

Steve Burgard

My friend and mentor Stephen Burgard, director of Northeastern’s School of Journalism for the past dozen years, died on Sunday. It was unexpected — he was on sabbatical, happily working on a new version of his book about religion and the media, when a longstanding lung ailment suddenly worsened.

I first met Steve online in the late ’90s, when I was covering the media for the Boston Phoenix and Steve was writing editorials for the Los Angeles Times. He was a Boston native, and he took an interest in what I was reporting about the Globe. We became frequent email correspondents as he wrote to me with ideas, observations and occasional criticism.

In 2002 he took the Northeastern position. After I expressed an interest in joining the faculty of my alma mater, he became my staunchest supporter, clearing the way for my hiring, helping me to learn the ropes as I worked toward tenure, and encouraging me every step of the way.

Steve was a huge baseball fan and had Red Sox season tickets. Last July 1, he took me to Fenway, where we watched the Sox lose to the Cubs, 2-1. Steve was truly in his element — but no more so than when he would drop by my office to talk about school business, gossip about something we’d seen on Romenesko, or just shoot the breeze.

I can’t believe we won’t be doing that again.

Bryan Marquard has written a masterful obit of Steve that appears in today’s Globe. And here is a growing tribute page that appears on our school’s website.

Northeastern University photo by Skylar Shankman.

Gary Webb: A flawed prophet who deserved better

Gary Webb in 2002. Photo via Wikipedia.

Gary Webb in 2002. Photo via Wikipedia.

It’s been a long time since I gave much thought to Gary Webb, the investigative reporter who wrote a series of articles for the San Jose Mercury News in 1996 alleging that the CIA looked the other way (or worse) when the Nicaraguan contra rebels sold cocaine in Los Angeles in the 1980s — thus leading to the crack epidemic.

Major news organizations engaged in a furious effort to discredit Webb, and he was eventually pushed into resigning from the Mercury News. He made several attempts to revive his career (including a stint with friend of Media Nation Al Giordano’s NarcoNews.com), but committed suicide in 2004.

Now a movie about Webb has come out called “Kill the Messenger.” I would like to see it. Here’s what I wrote about Webb in The Boston Phoenix in 1998 — part of a longer article on the crisis of credibility afflicting investigative reporting:

A good example of how important work can be quashed is the case of Gary Webb, a former reporter for the San Jose Mercury News. In August 1996, the Mercury published a three-part series by Webb alleging that Nicaraguan contra rebels, backed by the CIA, had sold cocaine in Los Angeles in the 1980s in order to finance their guerrilla war against the leftist Sandinista government. These operations, Webb asserted, touched off the crack epidemic in black neighborhoods across the country.

The series gained a national audience, especially among African-Americans, after the Mercury republished the series on its Web site. But when the Washington Post, the New York Times, and the Los Angeles Times published their own lengthy reports rebutting many of Webb’s conclusions, the Mercury backed off. Executive editor Jerry Ceppos apologized for the reports’ flaws in 1997, and Webb was exiled to the Cupertino bureau. He ultimately resigned.

Now Webb is back, with a new book that incorporates and expands on his original series. Unfortunately, Dark Alliance: The CIA, the Contras, and the Crack Cocaine Explosion (Seven Stories Press) is no guide to what went wrong unless you’re a blind Webb partisan. According to Webb, the big guns who came after him were motivated by malice and envy, and by a knee-jerk institutional need to suck up to the national security establishment. What few mistakes made it into in his stories, he asserts, were put there by boneheaded editors at the Mercury.

In fact, the anti-Webb exposés did establish beyond a reasonable doubt that Webb overreached in several key areas. Yet they never seriously challenged Webb’s central, well-documented premise: that the contras were selling cocaine in the US in order to fund their war in Nicaragua, and that their CIA sponsors looked the other way.

In October 1996, Geneva Overholser, then-ombudsman of the Washington Post, took her paper to task for putting more effort into exposing the flaws in Webb’s reporting than into following up the leads he had unearthed, and she challenged her colleagues to investigate further. No one took her up on it. Yet on Friday, the New York Times reported the existence of a classified CIA study that showed the agency “continued to work with about two dozen Nicaraguan rebels and their supporters during the 1980s despite allegations that they were trafficking in drugs.” At long last. Webb, of course, remains in the journalistic wilderness.

Aaron Kushner is shutting down the LA Register

CA_LAR

Click on image for larger view.

In April, when Orange County Register publisher Aaron Kushner launched the Los Angeles Register, the bloom was already off the rose. (Here’s what I wrote in June.) So it’s not really a surprise that Kushner is shutting down the misbegotten daily. Andrew Khouri of the Los Angeles Times has the details.

And here’s the inevitable quote from Kushner and his business partner Eric Spitz about all those darn naysayers:

Pundits and local competitors who have closely followed our entry into Los Angeles will be quick to criticize our decision to launch a new newspaper and they will say that we failed. We believe, the true definition of failure is not taking bold steps toward growth.

Image via the Newseum’s Today’s Front Pages.

Can Aaron Kushner go the distance?

Aaron Kushner speaking in April 2013 at California State University, Fullerton.

Aaron Kushner speaking in April 2013 at California State University, Fullerton.

This commentary was published earlier at The Huffington Post.

Has Orange County Register owner Aaron Kushner run into nothing more than a bit of turbulence from which he can recover? Or do the layoffs he announced last week show that his plan to resuscitate the newspaper business by hiring more journalists and doubling down on print is fundamentally flawed?

I hope it’s the former — not just because I’d like to see him prove everybody wrong (including me) about the future of news, but because I’m planning to include him in a book about a new breed of media moguls who are using their personal wealth and smarts to innovate their way toward a brighter future. (News of the layoffs was broken by Gustavo Arellano of OC Weekly, which has taken a jaundiced view of Kushner’s ownership.)

Trouble is, there have been hints previously that Kushner, 40, lacked the sheer financial firepower of Boston Globe owner John Henry or Washington Post owner Jeff Bezos. I’ll get to that in a moment. But first, a little background on what’s unfolding in Southern California.

Kushner, who bought the Register in 2012 for $50 million, was the most celebrated new newspaper owner in the country before he was eclipsed in August of last year by Bezos and Henry. “Can Aaron Kushner save the Orange County Register — and the newspaper industry?” asked the Columbia Journalism Review last May. As CJR’s Ryan Chittum explained it, Kushner’s vision was based on:

  • Lavish attention to the print product, including more pages and an upgrade in the quality of paper.
  • A move away from free or even reduced-price content online, with Internet users paying exactly the same fees as print subscribers.
  • An increase in the size of the newsroom staff, as he added 140 journalists to the 180 who were there when he bought the paper.

Nor was Kushner content with pumping up the Orange County Register. Last August he started a new daily, the Long Beach Register. He bought The Press-Enterprise of Riverside. And in his most audacious move yet, he announced plans to start a Los Angeles Register to compete with the Los Angeles Times, once among the best newspapers in the country and still formidable. (LA is also home to a second paper, the Los Angeles Daily News.)

Then, last week, came a significant setback. Not everyone agrees on the figures, but Ken Bensinger of the LA Times reported that Kushner laid off about 35 people at the Orange County Register and 39 at The Press-Enterprise. Register editor Ken Brusic and other top editors left. Rob Curley, who had overseen digital initiatives at papers at the Washington Post and the Las Vegas Sun, was promoted to the top position.

“We are evaluating our cost structure for the next leg of our journey in terms of covering Orange County and LA County,” Kushner told New York Times media columnist David Carr, who noted that Kushner plans to plunge ahead with his idea for a Los Angeles paper without adding any staff. Carr wrote:

By amortizing the costs of all the journalists he hired over a bigger market, he can achieve savings in terms of production while adding marginal readers and advertising.

He clearly sees himself as a smart entrepreneur making bold bets. I see a man on a wire, with millions of dollars and hundreds of jobs at stake.

As for past hints that Kushner may not be well-heeled enough to play the long game, you may recall that, several years ago, he tried to buy The Boston Globe. (The Globe’s then-owner, the New York Times Co., apparently showed no interest, and Kushner later struck out on a bid to purchase Maine’s Portland Press Herald.)

Before Kushner gave up on his Globe dream, though, Katherine Ozment wrote an in-depth profile of him for Boston magazine. Among other things, Ozment attempted to show precisely how Kushner had made a fortune in the greeting-card business, his major claim to fame up to that time. What she found was a haze of acquisitions, layoffs and charges (which Kushner denied) that he was late in paying artists, sales reps and the like.

Eventually Kushner left his company after some sort of falling-out with the investors, though he told Ozment he remained part of ownership. “I had a vision for the business, and they had a very different vision, and they controlled the working capital, so we decided to move on,” he said.

Despite that possible warning sign, it has to be noted that the Orange County Register remains a much more richly staffed paper today than when Kushner bought it. In a memo to his staff published by the blog LA Observed after the layoffs were announced, Kushner wrote that he now has 370 journalists — uh, make that “content team members” — covering Orange County and Los Angeles County, up from 198 a year and a half ago.

An optimistic take would be that Kushner got ahead of himself and is now retrenching, but not retreating. No doubt we’ll know a lot more as 2014 unfolds.

Photo (cc) by CSUF Photos and published under a Creative Commons license. Some rights reserved.

Goldsmith awards reflect the changing media landscape

I recently had the privilege of helping to judge more than 100 entries for the 2013 Goldsmith Prize for Investigative Reporting, which is administered by Harvard’s Joan Shorenstein Center. We chose six finalists, which were announced immediately, and a winner, which will be honored on Tuesday evening.

At a time when news organizations are struggling to survive, it was heartening to see so much good work. But the finalists also show how the world of investigative journalism is changing.

For instance, two of the newspapers that made it to the finalists’ circle, the Los Angeles Times and the Chicago Tribune, are owned by the troubled Tribune Co., which recently came out of bankruptcy and is now up for sale. If Tribune Co. ends up with the wrong owner, investigative excellence at its newspapers could become a thing of the past.

On the other hand, another finalist was produced by a collabortion among nonprofit news organizations: the Center for Public Integrity, Global Integrity, Public Radio International and the Investigative News Network. This is no longer surprising. Rather, it is further evidence that nonprofits are essential to carrying out public-service journalism.

Further evidence of the way things are in 2013: two of the finalists were produced by the New York Times, which, despite financial problems of its own, is more firmly established today as our leading news organization than perhaps at any other time in our history.

The sixth finalist is from the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, a Cox paper that has been experiencing something of a revival in recent years.

The finalists’ entries themselves run the gamut, from sexual abuse in Boy Scout troops, to Walmart’s corporate misbehavior in Mexico, to how the chemical and tobacco industries conspired to foist toxic flame retardants upon the public.

In addition to the investigative reporting award, also to be presented on Tuesday will be the Career Award for Excellence in Journalism, which will go to keynote speaker Nicholas Kristof, a columnist for the New York Times. The Goldsmith Book Prize will go to Jonathan M. Ladd for “Why Americans Hate the Media and How it Matters” and Rebecca MacKinnon for “Consent of the Networked: The Worldwide Struggle for Internet Freedom.”

The event, which is open to the public, will begin at 6 p.m. in the John F. Kennedy Jr. Forum at 79 JFK St. near Harvard Square.

Marty Baron leaves Globe for Washington Post

Marty Baron

Weeks of rumors and speculation came to an end a little while ago with the announcement that Boston Globe editor Marty Baron will replace Marcus Brauchli as executive editor of the Washington Post. The Huffington Post has memos from Baron, Brauchli and Post publisher Katharine Weymouth.

This is a very smart move for the Post and for Baron, who’ll have the opportunity to rebuild a faded brand. Not that long ago, the New York Times and the Post were invariably mentioned in the same breath. There’s still a lot of great journalism in the Post, but the paper these days lags well behind the Times.

Brauchli, a former editor of the Wall Street Journal, got off to a rocky start at the Post. In 2009 he and then-new publisher Weymouth got embroiled in very bad idea: to put together paid “salons” featuring Post journalists, corporate executives and White House officials. As I wrote in the Guardian, there was evidence that Brauchli knew more about the salons than he was letting on.

I take Weymouth’s decision to replace Brauchli with Baron — and Baron’s decision to accept the offer — as a sign that she’s grown in the job and was able to assure Baron of it.

Baron arrived at the Globe in July 2001 to replace the retiring Matt Storin. (Here’s what I wrote about the transition for the Boston Phoenix.) Baron was executive editor of the Miami Herald before coming to the Globe, but he also had extensive experience at the Los Angeles Times and the New York Times. Many observers believed his stint in Boston would be relatively short, and indeed he was considered for a top job at the Times less than two years later.

Instead, Baron ended up staying in Boston for more than 11 years, winning six Pulitzers, including the public service award in 2003 for the Globe’s coverage of the Catholic pedophile-priest scandal. He has been a solid, steady presence — a journalist with high standards who made his mark at a time when the newspaper business, including the Globe, was steadily shrinking. He also gets digital.

Last February, at an event honoring him as the recipient of the Stephen Hamblett First Amendment Award, Baron told journalists they should stand up against the fear and intimidation to which they have been subjected. You’ll find the full text of his speech here, but here’s an excerpt:

In this environment, too many news organizations are holding back, out of fear — fear that we will be saddled with an uncomfortable political label, fear that we will be accused of bias, fear that we will be portrayed as negative, fear that we will lose customers, fear that advertisers will run from us, fear that we will be assailed as anti-this or anti-that, fear that we will offend someone, anyone. Fear, in short, that our weakened financial condition will be made weaker because we did something strong and right, because we simply told the truth and told it straight.

What’s good news for the Post is less than good news for the Globe. A new editor after 11 years of Baron would not necessarily be a bad thing, as every institution can benefit from change. But at this point it’s unclear who the candidates might be, and whether the next editor will come from inside or outside the Globe. And whoever gets picked will have a tough act to follow.

Baron will be a successor to the legendary Ben Bradlee and all that represents — the Pentagon Papers, Watergate and a boatload of Pulitzers. I think he was an inspired choice, and I wish him the best.

More: Peter Kadzis of The Phoenix has a must-read blog post on Baron’s departure. Great quote from an unnamed source: “On an existential level, I wonder if Marty gives a shit. He’s like a character out of Camus.”

Paul Conrad’s grin of affirmation

The director of our School of Journalism, Steve Burgard, was an editorial writer at the Los Angeles Times before coming to Northeastern. He passes along an anecdote about Paul Conrad, the Pulitzer Prize-winning cartoonist who died on Saturday at the age of 86:

I was a newly minted editorial writer at the Los Angeles Times in the early 1990s, camped at a pod in the secluded second-floor editorlal page spaces at the desk of somebody who was out on vacation. While I had high hopes for the work I might later do at the page in the coming years, I was certainly a new kid on the block in every respect at that time.

One afternoon while laboring over a draft editorial, I felt a woosh of air behind my head as a drawing plopped down in the desk in front of me. The great cartoonist was looming up behind over my shoulder. He didn’t give a hoot about my stature, and I’m not sure he yet knew my name. He was looking for reaction to something he’d just drawn, and for that important purpose anybody would do. A nod and a grin of affirmation later, he picked it up and moved on.

Like Daniel Schorr, who died earlier this summer, Conrad was a member of Richard Nixon’s “enemies list,” which, according to his obituary, he considered one of his greatest honors.

The newspaper business is greatly diminished from what it was when Conrad was at his peak. His passing diminishes it a little more.