Monday, September 03, 2007

L.A. Times Should Restore Specific Bylines

In the lead story of Sunday's Los Angeles Times, Doyle McManus, the Times' venerable Washington bureau chief, has a useful article laying out prospectives for the new debate on Iraq war policy that will be kicked off this week in Congress by the release of the report by General David Petraeus, the U.S. commander in Iraq, as to how the war is going there months after President Bush ordered a "surge" of U.S. troops.

McManus is a far more authoritative writer, and far fairer I might add, to all sides of the debate than the antiwar advocate in the Washington bureau, Noam Levey, who has been covering the Democratic side of the debate this year.

But in the old days, before editor John Carroll scrapped the tradition of having bylines that identified staff writers by their specific roles at the newspaper, such as "Times political writer," "Times Science Writer," "Times Urban Affairs Writer," "Times Religion Writer," and so on, McManus would have been identified by his title, "Times Washington Bureau Chief" just under his byline. This would have tipped off readers that they were reading a report by the Times' senior national reporter.

It is time to bring back this system. In addition to giving readers' more information as to just who they are hearing from when they are looking at an article on a specially-defined subject, it also confers on the senior reporters some additional title that brings with it a higher status.

When a reporter has achieved some special expertise, or covers a particular subject all the time as part of his or her beat, this should be identified whenever he or she has a story in the Times.

Not doing so was one of the changes brought about by Carroll when he was at the newspaper that did not make sense.

I remarked last week that, as one of the steps that has recently been taken to improve the Times' California section, the work of George Skelton, the newspaper's state political columnist, has been moved from inside the section to Page 1 of the section.

Carroll, who in the words of one Times staff member, "didn't know jack" about California, did not realize how valuable an authority on state affairs the experienced Skelton was when, moving him from Page 3 of part one, where substantial state news used to be reported, to the newly-named California section, he stuck him way inside that section.

The Times editor and writers are now trying hard, it is evident, to recoup from some of the mistakes of past years, and other steps they have taken, such as removing some of the idiotic type faces installed by the thankfully-departed "design" editor, Joe Hutchinson, and reducing the Times "summary" pages back from an unnecessary two to the more reasonable one, have been salutary.

It was necessary for the Coca Cola company to go back to "Coke Classic," when "New Coke" proved to be a dud, and so it would be very smart for the editors of the Times to restore a more classic and traditional paper in some respects. Bringing back the old specific bylines would be such a constructive step.

That doesn't mean to say that every reporter should have a specific byline. General assignment reporters would be left with present bylines, as would new staffers, the night shift and so forth. This would simply be a return back to the old system of identifying reporters with their expertise when they have one.

I am not saying, either, that the paper should not move to keep up with the period, such as referring to an improved Web site providing more information and the like. But I am suggesting a return to tried and true traditions that made the Times one of the nation's most prominent and highly-respected newspapers in the country..

John Carroll is gone back East where he is more at home. We shouldn't have to live with every knuckle headed policy he implemented here in Los Angeles.

From a personal point of view, I very much appreciated the byline of "Times Political Writer" during many of the years I was at the Times, and kept it well into my Olympic reporting assignment. One of the last things my father said on his death bed, in fact, was to compliment me on attaining that title at the Times. It meant something, then and now.

--

President Bush arrived in the Anbar province of Iraq today on a previously-unannounced inspection trip in advance of the Petraeus report. He was accompanied by senior military and civilian advisers. The President remains committed, as he should, to the vitally important American role in Iraq. It is obvious he is not giving up on it.

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