Sign of the Times: Making the Los Angeles Times’ Front Page

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).

Wolinsky introduces me, joking with the assembled staff to “be on your best behavior.” The meeting runs relatively quickly, with editors highlighting stories they may pitch for page one later in the day. Wolinsky and Baquet ask a number of questions, prodding editors on the details of stories, when they think they’ll be finished, things to include in the ledes. The stories that seem to be candidates for page one include a feature on the Stanford Prison Experiment; a story on a Los Angeles PR firm, Fleishman-Hillard, which may have overbilled the city; a story about a new assessment of British intelligence before the Iraq war; one on the failure of the Senate to move towards a gay marriage amendment; a story about Riggs Bank; a story on Harrah’s acquisition of Caesars Las Vegas; and perhaps stories on a police beating, one on the report by England’s Lord Butler about British intelligence supporting the claim that Iraq attempted to acquire uranium from Africa, and another feature which the paper has yet to publish.

With more out there than the front page can hold (typically six or seven stories), I ask Wolinsky how he makes decisions on the margin, when he has two competing articles that are nearly equal in appeal. In the end, he says, you just have to trust your judgment; a decision is better than no decision.

During the afternoon, as the copy begins to filter in, Wolinsky gets brief summaries of all the stories for tomorrow’s paper (and beyond). Editors stop by to informally pitch the stories that they’ll be making cases for in the afternoon meeting. While he generally hasn’t seen the finished version of most of the pieces up for page one consideration, Wolinsky says he goes in to the afternoon meeting with an idea of what to put on the page but “it’s not in cement. I can be talked out of it pretty easily, sometimes — sometimes not.” National Editor Scott Kraft, who handles the DC bureau as well as the national staff based in Los Angeles and elsewhere around the country, describes the LA Times’ culture as a place where “passion for your stories is encouraged,” and says Wolinsky is someone who is “open to argument” and “wants to hear discussion.”

The 3:30 meeting: This is where the decisions are made. Wolinsky says that the meetings “remind me of a sitcom. You have the setup, and you have to resolve it within half an hour.”

At the appointed time, the editors pile in to the conference room just off the newsroom to discuss what should be on the front page. Unlike the morning meeting, this one is packed, with major section editors or their deputies seated around the table, Wolinksy at the head, and night deputy managing editor John Arthur seated across from Wolinsky at the far end of the table. Baquet sits to Wolinky’s left, and the chair to Baquet’s left, normally occupied by Carroll, remains empty. Lining the walls of the room are another twenty or so staff members, including the obituary and calendar editors, and a number of staff concerned with graphics, page count, the web site, and others who need to know what is going to be featured.

Wolinksy opens the meeting by calling on Roxanne Arnold, one of the editors of the paper’s front page “Column one” feature, who tells the group about the piece on the Stanford Prison Experiment. She is followed by Janet Clayton, the paper’s assistant managing editor for state and local, then national editor Scott Kraft, deputy foreign editor Mary Braswell, and so on down the line. As at the morning meeting, Wolinsky and Baquet poke holes in the editor’s stories, asking questions, emphasizing details to include. The group then pulls the blinds and dims the lights, and Alan Hagman, one of the paper’s photography editors, shows twenty or so potential page one pictures to the staff, projecting them onto the wall at the far end of the room.

After the lights come back on, the real decision-making process begins. Wolinsky asks national editor Kraft and deputy foreign editor Braswell, “What’s the best story today?” The consensus is that the procedural defeat of the gay marriage amendment deserves to be the paper’s lead story tomorrow.

From there, Wolinsky ticks off two others he wants on the front page: the story about PR firm Fleishman-Hillard’s alleged overbilling of the city, and an article about Riggs Bank funneling payments to associates of the leader of Equatorial Guinea. Next, he brings up three stories — a piece on Lord Butler’s findings about pre-Iraq war British intelligence, a story about the Butler report supporting the White House’s pre-war claims about Iraq’s attempts to acquire uranium from Africa, and a piece detailing information from a Senate report about Colin Powell’s February 2003 speech to the U.N. The last two, he says “are interesting because one tends to knock down claims of the administration, and one tends to support them.” He concludes, “I think we have room for one of those.”

Wolinsky says that Powell and the uranium story are “an interesting package”; Baquet adds that “if you do uranium, you could say … see page 9” for the larger story on the Butler report. Foreign editor Braswell says she likes the uranium story, essentially signing off on that.

Baquet then begins to question his own thinking. “Wouldn’t it look odd to reach into the [Butler report] and grab the one thing that makes Bush look good?” and put it one page one, he asks. Kraft adds that putting the uranium story on the front page is “kind of a fairness issue” because the paper had treated former Ambassador Joseph Wilson’s allegations about what the administration knew with such credence. Baquet replies, “I wasn’t overly reading for fairness” and that the Butler report itself, rather than the specific evidence about the uranium claim, is the bigger news story. Kraft, thinking about it, agrees that on those grounds the uranium story could go inside.

Wolinksy asks the room how they feel about putting the Powell piece on the front page and the uranium story inside. Baquet agrees, arguing that Powell’s speech was a milestone in the administration’s case for war; Melissa McCoy, assistant managing editor for the paper’s copy desks, adds that the uranium claim wasn’t as important as the Powell speech, and Wolinsky says putting the uranium piece on page one would be giving it more emphasis than the administration itself had.

Wolinsky then begins poking holes in his own logic, asking whether the Powell story is similar to the uranium story, in that both are reaching into larger reports to highlight one particular piece of evidence. Kraft disagrees: “The Powell thing’s better than you described.”

John Arthur makes a small pitch for the uranium story: “I like it because it’s counterintuitive.” Baquet disagrees: “It would seem odd” to put the Powell story inside. Wolinsky agrees, saying that the Powell story is stronger. He also slots in the Butler report article for page one, bumping the uranium piece inside.

The group briefly debates the merits of fronting a story about Harrah’s, a large casino operator, acquiring Caesars Palace, against an article about an immigrant-smuggling ring at Los Angeles International Airport. The quick consensus is for the Harrah’s story, which bumps the smuggling story to the first page of the California section. Wolinsky then lists the stories that have made the cut, and most of the staff files out.

With the decision made, the tone of the meeting shifts from tense but respectful to collegial. There is still the question of which photo to run; there is a sense among those still in the room that the relatively grim stories on the front page should be balanced with a lighter photo, an “upper,” as someone puts it. They roll through the possibilities again: photos from Iraq of civilians wounded in a car bombing the day before; Lord Butler leaving a press conference; protests in Peru; Bangladeshi flood victims; a memorial at the anniversary of an accident at the Santa Monica farmer’s market; the Lakers’ general manager giving a press conference about the team finalizing its trade of Shaquille O’Neal to the Miami Heat. No one seems to fall in love with any of them, and there’s discussion of what might break later that they could slot in. Someone mentions that US Olympic Swim Trials taking place in Long Beach, to which Wolinsky responds, laughing, “A bunch of guys in Speedos? That’ll work!” They look at some of the photos again; to a picture of Bastille Day, he responds, “Bastille Day! That only happens once a year!” Both are nixed. After a few more moments of discussion, the assembled staff settles on the Lakers press conference photo. (Several of the other photos appeared elsewhere in the paper the next day.)

Wolinsky concludes on a sardonic note, noting that “Unless the [Fleishman-Hillard] story is completely made up, in which case we go into the drink, they’re sunk,” and adding that if it isn’t true “They’ll own us — we’ll be the LA Times office of Fleishman-Hillard” — the only time I saw him express any concern about the implications for the paper of a story.

Back in his office, Wolinsky mentions that the Powell story was a bit of a sleeper for page one consideration. On his decision to place Powell above the uranium story, he notes that “Clearly, the Powell thing is a better story.” Baquet drops by his office to comment on the decision, saying the uranium story is really “reaching into the [Butler] report” to find the one thing favorable to the White House. “It would have been perverse” from a news standpoint, Baquet says, to put it on page one, deadpanning that it’s something “the Washington Times would do.”

A few moments later, in his office, National Editor Scott Kraft notes that there are several dynamics in play in the meeting. Often, he says, Wolinsky will ask about stories that editors hadn’t pitched. And while there’s always a bit of discussion in the meeting (he described the debate over uranium as “a bit more than usual”), “nobody really jumps on the table,” in part because things will continue to change as stories are finalized or late news breaks.

Just before 6:00, I’m back in Wolinsky’s office, and I ask him how the meeting played out against his idea of the page going in. “It ended up exactly what I expected,” he says, checking over his own notes.

The 6 p.m. meeting is the final organized check-in of the day. The design team has a mockup of the page, with the Lakers photo slotted in, and the page is divided up as it will eventually appear (including a small headline at the bottom of the page next to the Butler Commission story teasing the uranium article on page 9). The staff also sees the list of stories that the Washington Post has put out over its wire; they’ll have to wait until 7 PM, when the New York Times does a television show detailing its top headlines, to learn what’s in its other major competitor.

John Arthur runs the meeting (which is much more sparsely attended), with Wolinsky to his left, then Baquet, and representatives of the sections around the table. The meeting is quick, and the tone is light; informed that the Fleishman-Hillard story is up to 100 column inches, Wolinsky comments, “Jesus!” As the section representatives discuss their stories, Wolinsky and Baquet make comments — suggestions for issues to clarify, points to emphasize, angles to work. Wolinsky, playing with his glasses, comments that “I wanted to read the uranium story,” but the copy isn’t in yet. Baquet asks that the story on gay marriage feature the angle that with the defeat of the federal amendment for the time being, it’s likely to remain a prominent issue for states — a point that makes it into the fourth paragraph of the story (the New York Times noted it only in the final sentence of its article, and the Washington Post piece on the topic ignored it entirely).

The meeting moves into banter about the Lakers trade of Shaq to Miami. Wolinsky and Bacquet both say they’re very happy with what’s on the front page, then second-guess themselves a bit about placing the Harrah’s story on A1. Wolinsky briefly revisits the decision to place the uranium piece inside and carry the British intelligence report on the front page, but decides to stick with the layout as-is.

From here, the page is largely in the hands of John Arthur. If major news breaks, he’ll call Wolinsky and Baquet to discuss changing the page; he is also responsible for a final read-through and will make final tweaks to articles.

Arthur emphasizes that the paper uses the three-hour time difference between Los Angeles and the east coast to its advantage. He monitors the web sites of other major papers, and if a story breaks, “we might give it a run” and see if they can get it before deadline. The first edition of the front page goes to bed at 10:45 p.m., with sports finishing up at 11:00. Even after that, there is still the option of updating the paper around midnight. (Arthur noted that the day before, a big story out of Iraq had broken late, and the paper had been able to revise its lead article to include the information, and insert a color photo inside, for about 40 percent of its print run.)

What’s wrong with this picture? In the age of the internet, the notion of page one is, to a certain extent, an anachronism. The Times’ web presence, while an extension of the paper in tone and content, stands outside of the strictures imposed by page one. For example, the paper had posted five of the pieces it would run on page one to its web site by 8:30 p.m., whereas print readers would not see them until morning. Mike Young, head of the paper’s online news desk, told me that the web site lines up almost completely with page one by the time the paper hits newsstands, but that “paper is still the benchmark.”

And it is the web version, rather than print, that is the national presence of the paper. While the paper circulates a small national edition, Young said that 70 percent of the web site’s readership comes from outside the five-county Los Angeles metro area.

The difference, says Wolinksy, is that in print “it feels like you’re setting the agenda” for readers. “We try to capture a day, say, here’s what’s really important,” he says. “We’re creating a small bit of history on the run.”

Corrections: The above post has been changed to correctly note that the Times headquarters was bombed in 1910, and delete an in correct reference to that building as the first headquarters of the Times (it was the second). It has also been corrected to reflect the fact that the current building combines four different structures into a single building.

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Bryan Keefer was CJR Daily’s deputy managing editor.