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One Marginally Interesting Side Note About the aNew York Times Basing a Big McCain Story Today on an FOIA Document They Obtained From Yours Truly: One of the conditions of book leave from the L.A. Times is that if you uncover any legitimate news, you share it with the paper first. It's known colloquially as "the Bob Woodward rule." So when I finally nabbed McCain's National War College essay (details at the link above), I dutifully informed the paper, and eventually wrote up an opinion piece last November (again, available at the link above).

All the news side of the paper would have had to do to learn about the document was read the Opinion section. And all they would have had to do to obtain it was ask. Instead, it's the New York Times who has a story today, spreading out all over its wires.

A small detail, but perhaps illustrative (or counter-illustrative) at a time when the Holocaust itself will soon be blamed on Sam Zell -- my former newspaper, in fat times as well as lean, does a l-o-u-s-y job of retaining, harnessing, leveraging, or even knowing about the information and talent percolating within its own walls. Some of the better writers in the country are kept far off the page, saddled with bureaucratic tasks while mediocrites churn out column inch after column inch and editors whine about there not being enough writing talent to fill the daily hole. Buffoons like Bill Plaschke are kept around at high dollar while a revolution of fascinating sportswriting continues to rage unabated just outside Spring Street. The merely competent are treated like stars, and much of the best young talent moves along at the earliest opportunity.

It's funny; the Washington Post is, surprisingly to me, a far inferior newspaper to the LAT -- grey, thin, mostly boring, and with a nearly activist-written quality of local coverage. But the Post does a couple of things very right: National political coverage, an op-ed page with quality columnists, a Sunday Outlook section that is consistently very interesting, and a handful of star-types who actually come close to earning the appellation: Howard Kurtz (for his industry if nothing else), Jonathan Yardley, Gene Weingarten, Joel Garreau, a handful of others.

I think one of the worst things to happen to modern newspapers is the Buyout. Not because I weep for journalists losing their fat newspaper jobs -- truly, I do not. But because a generic get-out-of-jail-free card is too often taken quickest by those who have genuinely interesting prospects outside of the Velvet Coffin, instead of the lifers just looking to hang on to the meal ticket. There have been, what, 17 waves of buyouts at the L.A. Times this past decade? Yet how many times have managers looked around for the (many) people not pulling their weight, or for the staffing models dating from a half-century ago (or more), and said "You know what, let's cut the bloat first"? Not bloody often. There are few writers in L.A. more hated within the Times than Mickey Kaus, but I agree with him, not them, that you could do much more with 500 very good people than you can with the 900 or so in the newsroom now.

Before I completely alienate everyone I've ever worked with, I'll just add to the chorus in saying that management's decision to place the Sunday magazine under advertorial control is just an embarrassment (even moreso than the short-lived and newsroom-sanctioned "West" experiment). Lashing Sunday Opinion and the Book Section together was the very definition of pound foolish, and I have witnessed up close and in person the kind of decision-making more suitable at an October brushfire than a confident 21st century company.

All that said, my fear is that the deep pathologies in the journalistic side of that building, which long pre-date the word "Tribune" ever being mouthed on Spring Street, will harden into an immovable object against the irresistible force of Sam Zell's sure-to-be-occasionally-erratic slash-and-burn innovation over the coming couple of years. Which would be a shame, because there's still a lot of life in those pages, and even more bubbling up from underappreciated quarters of the paper's website and editing chains.

06/15/2008 10:57 AM  |  Comment (3)

Hi! What are you doing down here?

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