Loss of Wartzman column reveals LAT’s biz coverage priorities

The Reader Speaks

One of The Audit’s numerous sources in the business press passes along the following letter by Peter Dreier, a politics and policy professor at Occidental College in Los Angeles, to Los Angeles Times business-page editors. The letter (it’s not a letter-to-the-editor) protests the paper’s recent decision to drop a regular business column by Rick Wartzman, formerly of The Wall Street Journal . A Times note to its readers is appended.

It has come to my attention that the LA Times intends to end Rick Wartzman’s Business-section column, California & Co. This would be a serious loss to many loyal LA Times readers who believe the paper ought to cover issues and stories that impact the lives of the region’s working families. They do, after all, represent the vast majority of people who live in the region. Even if not all of them read the paper, the paper has a professional and moral obligation to cover their lives even-handedly and with insight.

In January 2006, I wrote an “outside the tent” op-ed column in the Times about the paper’s lousy coverage of working people. Soon thereafter (I’m not implying cause-and-effect), the paper brought in Joe Matthews to cover the long-vacant labor beat. That was a positive step, and Joe is a good reporter and does an excellent job, but it appears that his beat has been narrowly defined as primarily the link between labor unions and politics—in other words, unions as a political interest group—rather than the way business and the economy impacts the working and living conditions of the vast majority of residents in your circulation area.

In the past, a few of your reporters—Henry Weinstein, Hector Tobar, and Nancy Cleeland, among them—have excelled at this. The recent loss of Nancy Cleeland, who left the paper because she was frustrated by the paper’s unwillingness to cover the lives of ordinary working families, was a serious blow in this regard.

The LA Times has no full-time news reporter covering housing issues, despite the region’s serious housing crisis. It has no full-time reporter covering workplaces, despite the fact that the LA area is one of the most interesting and diverse regions in the country in terms of its occupational and economic sectors. It has no full-time reporter covering low-income neighborhoods — a reporter who can cultivate sources and learn about the daily twists and turns of live in these communities. These are topics that require expertise, knowledge of the subject, and cultivation of a range of sources that cannot happen overnight. They require, in other words, for the Times to make an investment in these beats, these issues, and the people and communities they impact.

Rick Wartzman’s column has helped fill the vacuum and bring a new slant to the paper’s coverage of these issues. His column has been a wonderful breath of fresh air. It is well-written, insightful, unpredictable, and provocative. Even when I don’t agree with Wartzman’s views, I believe I am better-informed for having read his column. I have assigned some of his columns in my courses at Occidental. He has covered issues and stories that are missing in the rest of the paper, and he has developed a growing and loyal following of readers. The loss of Wartzman’s column would be one more example of the Times’ seeming unwillingness to expand its journalistic horizons beyond a narrow demographic of readers.

As the LA Business Journal pointed out last week in its special issue on the 50 Wealthiest Angelenos, and as I wrote in my op-ed in that issue LA has widening economic divide between the very wealthy and the rest of the population. This has profound implications for the social, economic, culture, political, and civic conditions in this region which is, among other things, the nation’s capital of the “working poor.” Wartzman’s column helped your readers understand this. If the Times wants to truly be Southern California’s paper-of-record, it should expand, rather than retrench, its reporting of low-income and working class people, institutions, workplaces, and neighborhoods. It should also provide space for a column like Wartzman’s, who was able to link the “big picture” of economic trends with the day-to-day lives of ordinary Angelenos. Few reporters or columnists do this well. Wartzman had the knack.

The Times has a daily “business” section that seems to be written for a very narrow demographic of people in management and the upper tiers of the professions. But it needn’t focus narrowly on the corporate culture. It should, rather, focus on the way business and the economy shapes our lives, and look at things from the bottom up as well as from the top down. The Times seems to be tilting its news coverage toward the trivial, celebrity-oriented culture. Why waste all that talent at the paper on such trivia when there are important issues and problems that readers need to know about, issues and problems that can be humanized, as Wartzman does, so that they are no abstractions but stories about real people?

I strongly urge you to keep Wartzman’s column.

Peter Dreier
E.P. Clapp Distinguished Professor of Politics Director, Urban & Environmental Policy Program Occidental College
Los Angeles, CA 90041

Here’s a note Times Deputy Business Editor Davan Maharaj sent to me when I asked about Dreier’s letter:

The Los Angeles Times remains devoted to covering workers and issues involving working families. Rick’s departure does not in any way diminish our commitment to this. We are encouraging reporters on every beat to think more about how business practices affect the lives of working families. In the coming weeks and months, you’ll see new bylines and features in the Business section that I am confident you will find tackle these important matters.

With readers like Dreier, The Audit sleeps a bit more soundly at night.

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Dean Starkman Dean Starkman runs The Audit, CJR's business section, and is the author of The Watchdog That Didn't Bark: The Financial Crisis and the Disappearance of Investigative Journalism (Columbia University Press, January 2014). Follow Dean on Twitter: @deanstarkman.