Left-Coast Makeover

  • John Carroll, editor of the Los Angeles Times, is sitting at the black marble table in his office, writing a headline for the next Sunday's paper. Never mind that this is normally the job of a copy editor. Carroll likes the story — about a woman seeking the truth of her father's death in 1948 and why the government covered it up — and he wants readers to be drawn in. But more important, Carroll believes that no detail is too small in making a great newspaper. And after four years of his leadership, the world is taking notice. Carroll and his colleagues will pick up five Pulitzers at the annual awards lunch later this month, the second largest haul in the history of the prizes. (The New York Times won seven in 2002.) The total Pulitzer tally for the paper during Carroll's tenure is 11; during the previous decade, the paper won just eight.

    "The Times's run on Pulitzers is a good indicator of the increasing quality of the paper — and that can be laid at the feet of Carroll," says Orville Schell, dean of the Graduate School of Journalism at the University of California, Berkeley. Even Richard Riordan, the former Los Angeles mayor who had long complained of the paper's liberal bias, is a convert, won over by such coverage as the paper's evenhanded reporting on racial tensions at a hospital in South Los Angeles. "I think Carroll has done a sensational job," says Riordan, whose plans to set up a rival paper are now consigned to the back burner.

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    Born in New York City and raised in North Carolina, Carroll, 62, previously edited the Lexington Herald-Leader in Kentucky and the Baltimore Sun in Maryland. He maintains an elegant Southern gentility that leads him to preface his critiques with "I am inclined to think" and spreads credit for the paper's success widely among his staff. But few doubt he is the force behind the Times's renaissance, achieved at a time when editors of two rival papers showed just how precarious the job can be. In the past year, two of his peers — Howell Raines at the New York Times and Karen Jurgensen at USA Today — had to resign because of scandals in their newsrooms.

    Back in the late '90s, morale at the Los Angeles Times had reached an all-time low. The business side was being run by Mark Willes, a former president of General Mills who was dubbed the "cereal killer" and was resented at the newspaper for firing journalists and attempting to break down the wall between advertising and editorial. This culminated in a scandal over a special issue of the Sunday magazine in 1999 devoted to the new Staples convention center in downtown Los Angeles. After the issue's publication, it emerged that the paper had agreed to share the advertising profits with the Staples center, a fatal marriage of business and reporting. Many of the paper's best reporters left during this period, and the rest of the staff was in open revolt against management. "My job during the Willes era was basically damage control," says Doyle McManus, the paper's Washington bureau chief since 1996. The paper was sold in 2000 to Chicago's Tribune Co., which offered the editorship to Carroll just as he was about to become head of the Nieman Foundation at Harvard.

    The first thing he did was reorganize the top tier of editors. He hired as his deputy Dean Baquet, then the national editor at the New York Times, and gave him broad authority over the day-to-day running of the paper. Baquet has pushed his people hard to compete with the large East Coast papers in national and foreign coverage, in the Times's reporting on the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq as well as with in-depth pieces like a Pulitzer-winning series on Wal-Mart that showed how the store cut prices with overseas sourcing.

    Reversing a long-standing migration of talent to the East Coast, Carroll and Baquet lured gifted people like writers Doug Frantz and Kevin Sack and editor John Montorio from the New York Times and investigative reporter Deborah Nelson from the Washington Post. Last month they appointed Michael Kinsley, former editor of the New Republic and the online magazine Slate and a TIME contributor, as editor of the editorial and Op-Ed pages. To pay for the hiring binge, newly installed publisher John Puerner — whom Carroll calls "the best publisher an editor could have"--reduced overall staff levels from 5,330 to 3,400 through a combination of job elimination and outsourcing, while largely avoiding cuts in the newsroom. Daily circulation has dropped by about 100,000, to just below 1 million, but Puerner says much of the lost circulation was giveaways. He claims that margins at the Times have actually gone up in the past four years.

    Carroll also started reshaping the paper section by section. "The slogan would be, A National Paper from the West," he says. Thus, the Times increased its coverage of national parks, water politics and other issues that affect the West and are of national interest. One of its Pulitzers this year was for its reporting on last fall's wildfires in Southern California. The Metro section, which had been a confusing mix of local news for different editions, was reformatted into a California section that carries local and state news. (Miriam Pawel, who spearheaded the changes in California coverage, was replaced in a recent internal shuffle.) The California focus is also reflected in new feature sections on health and the outdoors, and in the creation of an automobile column, for which car critic Dan Neil won a Pulitzer this year.

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