After 10 years, hundreds of bylines and some of the best experiences of my professional life, I'm leaving the Los Angeles Times at the end of this month, along with 56 newsroom colleagues. We each have our reasons for taking the latest buyout offer from Chicago-based Tribune Company. In my case, the decision grew out of frustration with the paper's coverage of working people and organized labor, and a sad realization that the situation won't change anytime soon.
It's awkward to criticize an old friend, which I still consider the Times to be, but I think the question of how mainstream journalists deal with the working class is important and deserves debate. There may be no better setting in which to examine the issue: The Los Angeles region is defined by gaping income disparities and an enormous pool of low-wage immigrant workers, many of whom are pulled north by lousy, unstable jobs. It's also home to one of the most active and creative labor federations in the country. But you wouldn't know any of that from reading a typical issue of the L.A. Times, in print or online. Increasingly anti-union in its editorial policy, and celebrity -- and crime-focused in its news coverage, it ignores the economic discontent that is clearly reflected in ethnic publications such as La Opinion.
Of course, I realize that revenues are plummeting and newsroom staffs are being cut across the country. But even in these tough financial times, it's possible to shift priorities to make Southern California's largest newspaper more relevant to the bulk of people who live here. Here's one idea: Instead of hiring a "celebrity justice reporter," now being sought for the Times website, why not develop a beat on economic justice? It might interest some of the millions of workers who draw hourly wages and are being squeezed by soaring rents, health care costs and debt loads.
In Los Angeles, the underground economy is growing faster than the legitimate one, which means more exploited workers, greater economic polarization, and a diminishing quality of life for everyone who lives here. True, it's harder to capture those kinds of stories than to scan divorce files and lawsuits. But over time, solid reporting on the economic life of Los Angeles could bring distinction and credibility to the Times. It also holds tremendous potential for interacting with readers. And, above all, it's important.
In a way, the Times created my obsession for economic and class issues by sending me into low-wage Los Angeles as part of a 1998 initiative to increase coverage of Latinos. I was a seasoned journalist with lots of experience in Third World countries. Still, the level of exploitation I saw shocked me. Illegal immigrants, in particular, had no rights. In a range of industries, including manufacturing and retail, they were routinely underpaid and fired after any attempt to assert rights or ask for higher wages.
That disregard for workers spread up the chain of regional jobs, just as a crash in subprime home loans eventually lowers the entire real estate market. The same is happening to various degrees across the country.
Rather than reverse those troubling trends, recent political leaders have done just the opposite. Enabled by a Milton Friedman-inspired belief in free markets and the idea that poverty is proof of personal failure, not systemic failure, federal trade and regulatory policies have consistently undermined workers. The inequities worsened under President George W. Bush, who wears his antipathy toward labor on his sleeve. But few alarms were sounded by the mainstream press, including the Los Angeles Times.
In the easy vernacular of modern journalism, the Times and other newspapers routinely cast business and labor as powerful competitors whose rivalries occasionally flare up in strikes and organizing campaigns. What I saw was that workers almost always lose. Eventually I left the labor beat and wrote about education and housing. Even there, however, I noted a lack of enthusiasm for anything having to do with the region's working poor.
Why? The senior editors are not bad people. Like most journalists, they are in the business for the noblest of reasons. But in a region of increasing polarization, where six figure incomes put them in the top tier of the economy, they may not see the inequities in their own backyard.
I couldn't stop seeing them. I remembered the workers who killed chickens, made bagged salads, packed frozen seafood, installed closet organizers, picked through recycled garbage, and manufactured foam cups and containers. They were injured from working too fast, fired for speaking up, powerless, invisible. I saw that their impact on all of us who live in the region is huge.
Now, like hundreds of other mid-career journalists who are walking away from media institutions across the country, I'm looking for other ways to tell the stories I care about. At the same time, the world of online news is maturing, looking for depth and context. I think the timing couldn't be better.
With the Los Angeles Economic Roundtable, a source of economic research for 15 years, I'm exploring the development of a nonprofit online site to chronicle the regional economy from a full range of perspectives. We want to tap into the wealth of economic research being generated by academic institutions, business groups, labor unions and others, as well as the vast experience of ordinary Angelenos. After all, the economy is nothing more than how we live, work and consume, all drawn together.
Leaving a newspaper that was once my journalistic ideal is harder than I'd expected. It feels, I suppose, like walking out of a long marriage that was once filled with love and hope, but grew stale. There is nostalgia and regret, along with relief and new energy. I know it's time to let go of the old dreams and move on to new ones. Already, the Los Angeles Times is becoming part of my past.