I had an editor at La Jolla Light back in 2001 who was essentially hired as a Winston Wolf-like cleaner. We had a paper that would print anything: Recycled press releases, stories not relevant to the community, editorials on whatever subject that anyone on the staff wanted to write (including interns). The paper lacked any and all vision and was all over the place editorially even though it was serving an upper class, successful, educated community in Southern California that was probably reading the New York Times and The Atlantic instead. There were nationally relevant stories found just walking out on the street and stopping people and talking to them. The Scripps Institute of Oceanography is there. UCSD is there. La Jolla Playhouse is there. The Museum of Contemporary Art San Diego is there. La Jolla Cove is there. The Salk Institute is there, and my personal favorite, the venerable D.G. Wills bookstore is there. Gregory Peck lived there. Junior Seau lived there. Cliff Robertson lived there. Dr. Seuss. Raymond Chandler. Deepak Chopra. Rey Mysterio Jr. Interesting motherfuckers lived there. It was culturally rich and there should have been story after story covering this in the paper each week.
But instead, the paper was widely known as a rag. A place where writers and reporters could get a foot in the door, accept shit pay, get some by-lines and then move on to the alt-weekly (itself a bit of a piece of shit but more of a bloated, 800 pound, verbose turd) or start stringing for the daily or a bureau or a local magazine after a year or so. Web writing wasn’t really bringing in any money. I think $35 was what freelancers were paid and that was usually for several hours worth of work.
After doing some freelancing for a year or so, I was hired on staff by the recommendation of a friend, Buddy Seigal. Buddy told me that my new editor used to work for him and was a terrible writer. I adored Buddy for being a loud, opinionated, profound, profane teddy bear in the vein of Ashley Morris. In fact they died on the same day, two years apart. Stars that burn bright…
I knew something was fucked up at the paper but I was thrilled to be on staff at a weekly despite only having an Associates Degree in English and no J School other than Gator Tales, my high school newspaper. Actually, Gator Tales taught me a lot.
After a year or so as a staff writer, I was “promoted” (quotes because I didn’t receive a raise) to arts editor and was pretty anxious to move into a managing editor position or even executive editor should my current editor move on. Even though I tend to overestimate my ability, I wasn’t doing so here. There was almost no competition for the position at this paper. At a normal weekly, this would have been crazy. But the publisher and the editor were asleep at the wheel here (I have photos of this in the literal sense). The publisher was under the impression everything was fine and the editor was an overburdened family man who was only doing what it took to get by while having a deep interest in music trivia. So anyone showing ambition and a desire to do something extra was held in high regard.
One of the most glaring examples of how much vision the staff lacked was on the day of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks. We were two days out from deadline. Our cover story was always laid out in the middle two pages of the paper called the “center spread.” It was already paginated and copied and ready to go. The story was about an aquarium or an exhibit or something that I don’t remember other than the large image of a stupid looking fish we had chosen for the cover image.
We had an editorial meeting about what to do that morning. My pitch was to scratch the aquarium story, send the interns out into the street to do “man on the street” interviews and get quotes with photos, have staff members call on community civic, business, science and arts leaders and get their reactions. Then run all the photos with two-sentence quotes underneath on the center spread. It wouldn’t require much work design-wise. We would have all the art from the photos. The aquarium story could run in later weeks as it was pretty much an “evergreen” anyway. We may have to stay late and go over the copy and layout but so what? It was the biggest story we would ever see and we had a decent local angle that would capture diverse reactions of sadness, shock and anger and look good historically as well.
Unfortunately, the feckless editor and publisher decided to do a summery of what occurred that day in a timeline on the first page (typically where we ran our second largest story of the week). Basically, that wasn’t anything that any reader could not have read anywhere else. The aquarium story ran and the following Thursday, La Jollans still shook from the previous Tuesday were greeted by a fish on the front page of their community paper instead of the immediate reactions of members of their community. Even as a cub, I was pretty fucking devastated at the missed opportunity.
It was the biggest disappointment in a two-year span of disappointments as I endured Bible quotes being printed as stories on Easter, clip art being substituted for article photos and, my pet peeve, bad fucking pagination and design. The cover photos were always so bad I volunteered to spend time at home coming up with graphically-rich images crafted in Photoshop to subsitute for poor photos. One is shown below but if anyone reading this is ever at my house, just ask me and I can show you the rogues gallery of these. I saved them for posterity.
But as far as the arts section was concerned, all the photos were as good as I could get them. There was a music column and a film review every week written by freelancers. There was a large calender of events and “news you can use” and a few features including a large “main story” leading the section. I tried to make my own paper within a paper as much as I could.
We paginated our own sections so I tried to make mine as dynamic as I could using the pitiful program Quark (see how that says “Revolutionizing publishing. Again”? It says that because everyone stopped using it because it got it’s ass kicked by InDesign. One undo? Really?). My office mate, the business editor, was of a different era and struggled badly with pagination and just didn’t see the necessity of aesthetics. Quark annoyed the piss out of him. He struggled so much with computers that he was constantly getting me to come over and help him with things. One afternoon he called me over saying, “My arrows have disappeared Lance! My arrows are gone!” It was his scroll bars that he had somehow closed. If I had another whole post to write I would write it about him. He was not meant for mass production. Would scratch his back with a scratcher several times a day, hadn’t had a girlfriend in a few decades because he treated women clumsily, loved sports and resembled character actor Robert Wuhl.
One day the Mafioso owner of the paper who we called “Uncle Tony” showed up, had a brief meeting in the publisher’s office and called a staff meeting at around 9:15 a.m. The current publisher announced he was resigning, it was a pleasure and goodbye. He spent perhaps 10 minutes in his office and left with a box. Uncle Tony walked out and we watched him walk over to the Jack in the Box across the street and come back with another gentleman who came upstairs and by 9:30 a.m. this second gentleman was introducing himself as our new publisher. I’m surprised Uncle Tony didn’t say, “Leave the gun, take the cannoli.”
The new publisher was smart, young and made it clear that he was here to improve the reputation, quality and financial viability of the paper. Come to find out it was losing a shit ton of money. He made it clear though that he was there to right a rudderless ship. That was refreshing to me. I was concerned that he had a background in sales without any editorial history and wasn’t sure if I was going to be tossed on my ass for not having any experience but at $10.80 an hour, did they expect a Pulitzer candidate?
Come to find out it was my editor who got tossed on his ass after a few months. Everyone saw it coming. He was working a second job at night to support his family and was often seen sleeping at his desk. The previous publisher let it slide because they were tight but the new one was constantly waking him up and reprimanding him. Errors in the copy were getting through and when one finally showed up on the cover text it was clear a change needed to be made.
I had several conversations about ideas I had for the arts section of the paper at our meetings and I tried to show my worth and value to the paper through my section. I was loyal to my editor who gave me an opportunity right out of community college (and essentially saved me some money on state school) but I also needed to make sure the publisher knew the editorial side of the paper wasn’t a complete piece of shit.
So I was called in to the publisher’s office and thanked for doing such a good job and told that I had a future at the paper possibly as an Executive Editor but right now he needed to bring in someone with a solid, hard news background to right the course and get the paper some awards and a better reputation around town. This person was to be the cleaner.
However, they wouldn’t be able to accept the job until two weeks after my current editor left and would I mind being the interim editor for two weeks? I didn’t mind. It went well but I busted my ass to try and make some immediate changes to coincide with the short piece we ran on my current editor’s departure.
I figured out that to bring in an editor with that much more experience would require a pay raise and a pay raise would have essentially allowed my previous editor to quit his moonlighting job and concentrate on the paper more. In the end though, he just didn’t have what was needed.
My new editor what was promised. She was tough. She cursed. She had pantyhosed legs like tree trunks that she never crossed and wore skirts about two inches too short. She would argue with anyone including her new boss. If you did a bad job, you would hear about it. She knew every journalistic rule and used all the lingo. I hated sitting outside her office as she read my stories and then called me in to point out every cliche and anecdote I used throughout. She was prone to moody fits. She had several simultaneous boyfriends that she would take long lunches with. She had hundreds of rules and they were all passed on to her by previous editors and their previous editors and so on. They weren’t “her” rules they were “the” rules. And she asserted these rules early in most cases. Though she had questionably ethics outside the office, her ethics within were like a rock.
But she was very cool too. She pissed me off to no end but I never felt personally disparaged or alienated by any of it. These were critiques of my writing and my journalistic knowledge, not my personality or upbringing. We became friends.
The photographer was canned almost immediately. He never could understand the concept of the “action” shot. He was replaced by a series of interns who admittedly did a better job and some salary was freed up. See the embedded photo as an example of what he brought us when asked to photograph one of La Jolla’s most upscale restaurants.
As part of the new ethics at the paper came a broader line separating the editorial side of the paper from the advertising side. I say “side” because the office was set up almost precisely like that. One walked in the front door and there was a hoochie mamma receptionist and a board room behind her and then if you were there for advertising, you got escorted over to the left. If you were there for editorial, you were escorted to the right. It was a clear line that was essential so that staff members on one side wouldn’t be influenced by sales reps talking on the phone or vice versa.
Advertisers almost always expected some editorial in return for their ad purchase. The sales reps had the awful task of selling print advertising, a product that is abstract on its return on investment. It’s not like a Corvette that you can zoom on down the freeway and get an exhilaration from. The print ad just goes out there and sits. It takes some good ads and a few dozen issues worth of ads to begin to see results. A week or two won’t do. And ads aren’t cheap. So to sell the ads the reps at this paper were constantly telling their clients that they would talk to the editorial department about getting a story and they often crossed over into our department with press release in hand under the watchful eye of the editor. Sneaky little shit those sales reps.
You can sometimes spot a paper that is trading editorial for ad purchases because they have a story running on a restaurant and then a few pages later, an ad for that place. But this isn’t always the case. Sometimes the sales rep calls the restaurant to sell them the ad after they know the story is going to run. The line is often blurry.
Our approach was to afford these advertising pitches the same consideration we would any other. But the smarter reps would learn when and where we would develop holes in the copy and pitch their clients at the right time to solve a problem for us. How we chose a story at the beginning of the cycle was a lot different than how we chose one when we suddenly got two dropped quarter page ads and consequentally had a half a page to fill with editorial. If a sales rep shows up with a story about his or her client who is hot to trot and he has the art and a phone number right there in his hand then it’s hard to look the other way when deadline in a few hours away.
The publisher, having a background in sales, was willing to toe this line more often than not. The editor, having come from a daily where those two sides of the company weren’t even on the same floor of the building, was not. In these battles, my strong willed, short skirted ball buster editor usually triumphed over the young, compromising publisher.
One of the first things she put an end to was “freebies.” Local businesses were constantly offering us free tickets to shows, free food, free rooms at hotels, free everything. Plus one as well. And we took them too. This was a pretty smart move by these businesses. We would gladly take the free dinner and then go to a free show afterward and escape a $300 night with only tips and gas. The following week, if we didn’t feel obligated to do a story on the place, we often felt compelled to based on how good a time we had. I saw Lucinda Williams, Wilco, Isaac Hayes, Merle Haggard, Spinal Tap, Willie Nelson.
It didn’t take long for my new editor to get wind of this and we were called into her office and told not to accept any more offers from anyone unless the story was agreed to be written beforehand by the staff in an editorial meeting. I protested stating that we only made $10 an hour and the freebies were helping supplement our expenses. She had a meeting with the publisher and by the end of the day we had all received raises to $16/hour. That pretty much shut us the fuck up about the freebies and our released photographer.
And the paper improved. Vastly. Editorials were now pitched and written by the staff as a whole and signed as such. No story that didn’t have a direct connection to the community of La Jolla was no longer allowed. We dug in to the community. We printed no anonymous letters to the editor nor quoted anonymous sources. The AP Stylebook was on every desk. Clip art vanished. The business editor was relieved of his pagination duties and I took over (both he and I were grateful for this). A complete redesign of the paper soon followed.
We won awards. I won my only “first place” in any writing contest ever while there. I won second place so many times I have lost count. The other members of the news staff won some too and we got quite a buzz on at the San Diego Press Awards and made all the other papers take notice when we accepted one. The entire reputation of the paper was transformed very shortly.
And one of the main reasons for that was the ethics brought to the table by my editor. They changed everything. The editorial department was not beholden to advertisers or business leaders or anyone else. We weren’t bringing down presidencies, we were just doing features and news but we did them for the readers of the paper. They were who we were beholden to. They were our boss. The advertising side was beholden to their clients. We we were beholden to the readers those clients were trying to reach. We served them. If we didn’t serve them, who would read the ads? We didn’t tell them how to think, we offered things to think about. And everything we said could be traced to a source with a name used in the article. That way, we elicited the conversation among others and couldn’t be accused of operating for one side or the other.
In a short time, the reputation of that paper was transformed and it did so through ethics.