The Los Angeles Times,
July 15, 2004 (click for larger image)

In an election year, it is the front pages of the nation’s major papers that set the tone for how political stories are covered. The Los Angeles Times, with a staff of about 45 in its Washington bureau (roughly equivalent to that of the New York Times), is a major player in the election by any reckoning — and the decisions it makes about how to place stories on its front pages help determine how the public thinks about politics.

With that in mind, we paid a visit on July 14. Leo Wolinsky, the deputy managing editor of the Los Angeles Times in charge of page one, is sitting in his office just before the 10 a.m. check-in meeting he holds with the editorial staff. I have asked him for a metaphor to describe how he thinks of the front page; after pausing for a moment, he replies, “architecture,” in the sense that a building’s appearance “tells you what it is, what people are inside, what goes on inside.” A front page, he says, “tells you a lot about the philosophy of a paper.”

By that standard, the Los Angeles Times’ downtown headquarters, a mish-mash of styles ranging from Art Deco to postmodern black glass, is perhaps a better indicator of the paper’s tumultuous past than its present. Originally, it was several separate buildings, which were joined in the late 1970s. A historical marker outside the building notes that the headquarters of the Times was blown up during a labor dispute in 1910, and that, in constructing the current building in the 1930s, publisher Harry Chandler “ordered that for every batch of sand and cement used in construction, an extra bag of cement be added. No one, Chandler declared, could ever again bring down the Times with a bomb.”

Wolinsky doesn’t have any bombs in his office, but he does have, on a shelf behind his desk, a wooden clock with fake sticks of dynamite that resembles an explosive device out of an old Warner Brothers cartoon. His office is just off the main newsroom, on the third floor of the building. A Los Angeles native and a youthful-looking 55, he has been with the Times since he joined the paper in 1977. After ten years as a reporter, he held various editorial positions until he became managing editor for news in 1997, with the primary responsibility for page one. He is both relaxed (at one point during one of our conversations, he put his foot up on the edge of his desk) but also in nearly constant motion, fiddling with his glasses as he thinks aloud, leaning forward, speaking quickly but measuring his words. The result is that he gives off the unmistakable impression of being in charge, combined with a good reporter’s ability to make a speaker feel as though he is always being listened to.

Readers might think that the front page is what moves papers off of newsstands, but Wolinsky says, “I don’t think about selling the paper at all.” Rather, he intends page one to be “comprehensive, but edited to reflect the importance of stories.”

That process begins in earnest with a meeting of the editorial staff at 10 a.m. to discuss what everyone is working on. The staff gathers in the sort of conference room one would expect at a newspaper, more utilitarian than flashy. The table in the center of the room is actually several tables pushed together to form one large surface; at the edges, a bit of the veneer is peeling off in places. At the center of the tables is a small replica of the NBA championship trophy. Wolinsky sits at the head. Most section heads have sent deputies, rather than appearing themselves; managing editor Dean Baquet attends, and a chair next to him, normally occupied by editor John Carroll, is left open (Carroll is on vacation).

Bryan Keefer was CJR Daily’s deputy managing editor.