Editor stands up of for good journalism — and gets fired

On Monday, James O’Shea, editor of the Los Angeles Times, was fired because of his unwillingness to go along with the latest round of newsroom cuts demanded by the publisher. It’s always inspiring to see someone take a stand on principle, especially when they have to make a significant personal sacrifice.

Another impressive and depressing aspect of the story is that O’Shea is the third editor since 2005 to leave under the same circumstances. They hired O’Shea to make the cuts that his predecessors wouldn’t make, but the demands for cuts soon reached a level that he wouldn’t make either. How would you like to be the next editor?

O’Shea spoke to the staff before leaving, and then sent out this e-mail to those who had missed his remarks. I’ve included the most interesting portions. I didn’t leave out much, but there’s a more complete version here:

…By now I am sure you have all heard I am leaving the Los Angeles Times after 14 months as editor of the paper…

I know there’s a lot of talk about why I am leaving so let me set the record straight. In discussions about the current and future budgets, it became clear that Publisher David Hiller and I didn’t share a common vision for the future of the Los Angeles Times. In fact, we were far apart. So David decided he wanted a new editor…

This is a tough time in the company and the industry. I understand that. I spent much of my career covering business and economics. I understand the realities of the bottom line. I am not some naïve, starry-eyed journalist who can’t accept economic reality. I know you have to cut back in hard times. I’ve done that more often than I care to mention. I also know this is a time of transition with change sweeping throughout the industry. But when you don’t agree with the future course of the newspaper it’s best to simply move on. There are plenty of other challenges out there for me and I don’t intend to sit around idle. There are bike rides to be had, books to write and hopefully another opportunity or two to make a difference. I am not a quitter.

One thing I want put on the record, though, is that I disagree completely with the way that this company allocates resources to its newsrooms, not just here but at Tribune newspapers all around the country [The L.A. Times is owned by the Chicago-based Tribune Co]. That system is at the core of my disagreements with David. I think the current system relies too heavily on voodoo economics and not enough on the creativity and resourcefulness of journalists. We journalists have our faults, but we also have a lot to offer. Too often we’ve been dismissed as budgetary adolescents who can’t be trusted to conserve our resources. That is wrong. Journalists and not accountants should seize responsibility for the financial health of our newspapers so journalists can make decisions about the size of our staffs and how much news remains in our papers and web sites.

The biggest challenge we face — journalists and dedicated newspaper folks alike — is to overcome this pervasive culture of defeat, the psychology of surrender that accepts decline as inevitable. This mindset plagues our business and threatens our newspapers and livelihoods. I believe that when Sam Zell [principal owner of the Tribune Co.] understands how asinine the current budgetary system is, he will change it for the better, because he is a smart businessman and he understands the value of wise investment. A dollar’s worth of smart investment is worth far more than a barrel of budget cuts.

This company, indeed, this industry, must invest more in solid, relevant journalism. We must integrate the speed and agility of the Internet with the news judgment and editorial values of the newsroom, values that are more important than ever as the hunger for news continues to surge and gossip pollutes the information atmosphere. Even in hard times, wise investment — not retraction — is the long-term answer to the industry’s troubles. We must build on our core strength, which is good, accurate reporting, the backbone of solid journalism, the public service that helps people make the right decisions about their increasingly complex lives. We must tell people what they want to know and — even more important — what they might not want to know, about war, politics, economics, schools, corruption and the thoughts and deeds of those who lead us. We need to tell readers more about Barack Obama and less about Britney Spears. We must give a voice to those who can’t afford a megaphone. And we must become more than a marketing slogan. I know I can rely on this newsroom to do this.

Lastly I want to make it clear that I didn’t quit. Anyone in a top newsroom management job during tough times always wrestles with a crucial question: Where is the line? At what point do you go from “I can deal with this” to “this is simply wrong.”

…So when I got here, I wondered anew: Where’s my line: Would it be a newsroom of 800 people? 700? But then I realized the folly of that kind of thinking. I’d been around the accountants and their ‘metrics’ too long. The line you draw is this: Do I believe in the course we’ve set for the future? If the answer is Yes, if I thought the LA Times could resolve its problems by getting smaller and smaller, by being gradually diminished, then I would stay. If not, (and I don’t) then I told myself to take a stand and say enough is enough. If you have to consider closing foreign bureaus and cutting back in other parts of the paper to free up the money needed to cover the Olympics and the most historic political campaign in modern times, well to me that’s no plan for the future, that is not serving the interest of readers. It is simply stupid. Even though we face tough and demanding times and I sympathize with those who face daunting revenue challenges, I don’t believe that we will succeed long term by giving up; by taking steps that I think will gradually diminish newspapers. I decided to take my stand and say: Change the way we do things. I made that decision and I will live with the consequences. And when I walk through the Globe Lobby for the last time, I can guarantee you that I won’t regret taking that stand. I believe history will prove me right. When this industry stops relying so much on cuts and starts investing in Journalism, it will prosper because it will be serving the best interests of our readers. That’s when we will prosper. I wish you all the best and with that its time to say of my tenure here:

Dash 30 Dash.

(In case you’re wondering about the ending, -30- is old-fashioned journalistic code to signal the end of a story.)

You can also learn about all our free newsletter options.

Comments (2)

  1. Submitted by John Olson on 01/24/2008 - 07:12 am.

    Like so many other businesses, media companies are being bought out by investment firms because the investment firm believes they can make a profit for their shareholders. The problem is, many of today’s institutional shareholders demand immediate financial results and are unwilling to wait. Or, the changes are made to satisfy a handful of Wall Street analysts.

    For example, a company that manufactures widgets can satisfy their shareholders by shifting production overseas and closing their U.S. facilities. Of course jobs are lost here, buildings are left vacant, and the impact affects the community as a whole. Personally, I do not care for this approach myself, it is simply a statement of the times we live in.

    But a newspaper cannot outsource its newsroom to Bangalore and expect “Frank,” “Susan,” and “Ed” to cover a local news conference, ask questions, and seek additional views on whatever the topic happens to be. Forget whatever real or perceived bias a newsroom may have for a moment and consider that virtually all of the “news” that is available in whatever medium originates with at least one person gathering the raw information and repackaging it for their intended audience.

    In my mind, the success or failure of a news organization is the ability of its people to react to events quickly, collect as much accurate information as possible, consolidate and summarize that information and get it out the door in one or more formats. The demands of the analysts and institutional investors for “lean” are occuring at the expense of the day-to-day demands of a competent, professional newsroom.

    Once those investors have perceived that they have made what they are going to make, they will discard the carcass of that business like an empty cup of coffee. I truly fear for the future of journalism as it exists today.

  2. Anonymous Submitted by Anonymous on 01/24/2008 - 10:22 pm.

    Until the newspaper world removes their liberal bias, many of us will vote with our wallets. Couldn’t happen to a better bunch of people.

Leave a Reply