I had breakfast on Monday with long-time friend Larry Ingrassia, formerly business editor of The New York Times and a senior editor at The Wall Street Journal, now managing editor of the Los Angeles Times. He told me that he is working hard and enjoying his new job as one of three managing editors at one of America’s storied newspapers, owned for years by the Chandler family and now by Tribune Publishing. Here are some of the highlights of our discussion:
1. Covering California — Ingrassia wants the LA Times to be the best at covering all things California, from the drought to the movie business to traffic to agriculture. The Washington D.C. bureau and the reporters in both the Pacific Rim and Latin America all have the responsibility to consider the California angle on trade negotiations, movie launches in China or activities of California-based companies.
2. Doing Less Commodity News — “We are going to do less of being the newspaper of record. Thirty years ago, there was a lot of event journalism. As reporters, we re-purposed press releases on quarterly earnings. That was neither sophisticated nor smart reporting. We have to be more disciplined, to do in-depth work and be really good in certain areas.”
3. Immediacy and Accuracy — “Immediacy is new the new coin of the realm. But it must be balanced with accuracy. Stories have to be right.” He insists on two sources for a story. Note that the LA Times broke the Dennis Hastert story last week, showing that insistence on old-school standards of journalism does not preclude top-class investigative reporting.
4. Impact Journalism — The paper ran a four-part series late last year entitled The Product of Mexico, which focused on bad working conditions on farms in Mexico and on the food suppliers in the U.S. that were buying products from the farms in question. The series was a Pulitzer finalist for international reporting. “The stories had a big impact. The American companies stopped buying from the Mexican farms until they reformed their practices. This is the kind of public service journalism that matters. It is on us in the media business to figure out how to do it in our business model.”
5. Comments Need to Be Moderated — Ingrassia is very much in favor of a robust discussion with readers. “For most comments, we have a digital filter (for obscenities and offensive words). We only have human moderation on those things we consider the most sensitive. As a result, there is better discourse on issues.”
6. Innovating in Niches — The LA Times will shortly introduce “EmergingUS,” a new digital magazine that concentrates on immigration and identity. It will be edited by Jose Antonio Vargas. “We think ethnicity, identity and immigration are issues especially important in California and to Californians, and as such, we want to be a leader in covering them. This is part of our effort to respond to what we think our readers want.”
7. The Long Cycle Change in Newspapers — “About 20 years ago, newspapers were flush and decided to embrace lifestyle journalism, to go beyond hard news and to compete with magazines. The papers increased their staffs and got more sophisticated. Now we are on the back slide due to decreasing advertising rates in digital and falling circulation. In some cases, this is leading to bad journalism, simply reporting of the facts. The readers want insight and context, not just facts. If you do journalism well, you will find readers who will pay for it.”
You will have noticed that in the past few weeks, I have been using my blog to talk about the evolution of the newspaper business. I want to underline the distinction between media and journalism. There is a business model challenge, but quality journalism is necessary for a vibrant democracy. It is also needed for a viable public relations business. I urge all of you who read this blog post and my prior one on The Wall Street Journalto look for opportunities to bring clients and mainstream media together on integrated video sponsorships, on substantive sponsored content and for salon dinners on important topics such as energy or agriculture. We can no longer assume that these storied institutions will carry on in the same way; we need to be part of their long-term business plan as partners, not story pitchers.