Saturday, April 14, 2007

L.A. Times Has A Good Week, Things Looking Up

With the appointment of Jim Newton as the new Times editorial pages editor, and publication this week of several tremendous Page 1 and Calendar section stories and columns, it seemed like the paper is fortifying a turn for the better that seems to have begun with the purchase of the Tribune Co. by real estate magnate Sam Zell.

I know it's early, but I have a good feeling about Zell, who is not likely to hold the animus for California, Los Angeles and the Times that Tribune CEO Dennis FitzSimons has had. After all, he has cared enough for L.A. to have a home out here, which he frequently visits. And why not? Wouldn't any Chicagoan who can afford to live somewhere else want to do so? (Two good articles on Zell's Jewish background appeared this week by Bill Boyarsky in the Jewish Journal and Nathaniel Popper in the Jewish Daily Forward).

One of the earliest economic signs of a definitive Times upturn would be an increase in the newspaper's promotional budget to allow the advertisements necessary to reverse the circulation decline.

That said, this week's stories and the Newton appointment are fine for the paper.

Newton, unlike the previous two editorial page editors, Michael Kinsley and Andres Martinez, actually is a Californian, and, unlike Kinsley, he will be working full time at the job. He is a talented newsman, as proved once again by his tremendous recent book on the life of Earl Warren. This is a good appointment by Times Publisher David Hiller. It represents a turning point for the Times editorial pages, which include the Op Ed page and Sunday's Opinion section.

Tom Johnson, former publisher of the Times, in a message to Newton today, called the appointment "a splendid decision by David Hiller" which "places the editorial page and Op Ed page back in the hands of a highly seasoned professional who knows well the market primarily served by the Times -- Southern California." He also noted Newton's understanding of national and international issues.

Newton, 44, a Dartmouth graduate and editor of the college newspaper, has worked for the New York Times, Atlanta Constitution, and, since, 1989, the Times, as city-county bureau chief and political editor, among other posts. His background in Los Angeles and California affairs will be very welcome on the editorial page, but Hiller also emphasized that the Times editorially would continue to be greatly interested in national and foreign affairs.

Jim Rainey's story on the appointment in this morning's paper quotes Newton as describing himself as "moderate to liberal and not particularly partisan," which also was a good description of the politics of Warren, the California governor and U.S. Supreme Court chief justice he wrote about in his book. (Rainey describes Newton's predecessor, Martinez, as "hard to categorize," a polite way to describe a man who was primarily a goofball. We have Martinez's love life, leading to ethics questions, to thank for his welcome departure from the Times).

The Times, meanwhile, by any standard, had a good week in news coverage. Two front-page stories, on Iraq and cancer surgery, stood out in particular, as did the Times coverage of the Don Imus demise, especially an outstanding column by Tim Rutten. The Calendar section is improving, as Friday's eclectic mix of movie reviews, the Rutten column, and a story by New York media correspondent Matea Gold and an "appreciation" by Times book review editor David Ulin, demonstrated.

The front page articles by Borzou Daragahi on his four and a half years of reporting in Iraq, and the personal account of her preventive cancer surgery by Anna Gorman would have made the week distinguished for the Times had it published little else. These kinds of stories are what the Times often does best, and are not seen in the New York Times.

Meanwhile, Rutten's media commentary, and his book reviews, are always good. He dug up aspects of the Imus controversy that almost no one else had. And Gold's piece on censorship by many PBS stations of military profanities in a war documentary, as well as Ulin's "appreciation" of novelist Kurt Vonnegut, who died during the week, added substantially to the unusually good Friday Calendar section.

Many weeks like this, and the Times will be making a comeback. Now, if only FitzSimons will follow Martinez into journalistic oblivion, we will really be getting somewhere.

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