John Carroll on Winning Pulitzers While Losing Circulation, and the Future of Corporate News Outlets

John Carroll

On Wednesday, Los Angeles Times editor John Carroll announced he was stepping down, effective August 15, and will be succeeded by Managing Editor Dean Baquet, whom Carroll convinced to leave the New York Times five years ago. Under Carroll’s leadership, which began in 2000, the Times took home 13 Pulitzers — five of which came in 2004, an accomplishment surpassed only by the New York Times, which earned seven Pulitzers for its coverage immediately following the 9/11/01 attack on the World Trade Center. Carroll, 63, has received both the American Society of Newspaper Editors’ Leadership Award and the Committee to Protect Journalists award for lifetime achievement in defense of press freedom. He is widely regarded as one of the two or three boldest and best newspaper editors in the country.

Paul McLeary: One of the reasons the Los Angeles Times represents a puzzling — even disturbing — case study for the rest of us is the striking disparity between its journalistic performance (13 Pultizer prizes in five years) and its circulation performance (daily readership down 6.5 percent and Sunday readership down 7.9 percent in just the past 12 months). You must have felt at times like the gladiator who keeps vanquishing foes in the arena, yet every time he looks up at the bleachers, people are filing out the exits. As the guy who lived that paradox, do you have any insights into it to share?

John Carroll: I believe content had nothing to do with the circulation decline; if anything, the decline was mitigated by our content. Where does the blame lie? The list is long: 1. The scandal at Newsday, which prompted both our internal auditors and the Audit Bureau of Circulation to disallow certain types of sales that were previously considered legitimate. 2. The advent of the “do not call” list, which stymied our phone sales. 3. The reduction of the newspaper’s cost base by more than $130 million annually, which cut the strength of marketing and promotion efforts, among others. 4. Issues on the business side that recently prompted the appointment of new directors of circulation and marketing. 5. And, of course, increased competition for readers’ time. That’s only a partial list.

PM: How much of your time as editor was consumed by budgetary issues as compared to actually editing the newspaper day in and day out? And did that ratio change as time went on?

JC: I spent very little time on these things. We have skilled people who can frame financial issues sharply, so I don’t have to spend much time on that. Time was never the problem; sleepless nights and the quality of the paper were. Overall, I had more time in the newsroom than any editor I know. The publisher who hired me, John Puerner, supported my request to spend nearly all my time on journalism, not in business-side or corporate meetings. He covered my back, so I didn’t have [to be on] patrol. That extra time in the newsroom made possible whatever journalistic success I’ve had.

PM: In April of this year, General Motors decided to pull its advertising from the Times after Dan Neil, one of the paper’s automotive writers, wrote a piece calling for the ouster of GM Chairman and CEO Rick Wagoner. Have any other big advertisers ever threatened to do this (you don’t have to name them), and what effect, if any, do you think this may have had on journalism in general?

JC: We’ve had occasional threats from advertisers, and a few of them have been carried out. It’s not uncommon in our business.

PM: It’s generally acknowledged that the New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, the Wall Street Journal and the Washington Post are the four premier newspapers in the country in terms of resources that they throw into reporting and presenting the news. Three of those four are essentially family-held enterprises, in that a majority of voting stock remains in private hands. The fourth — your employer — is a publicly-held company. Is it possible for a great newspaper to thrive under the umbrella of a publicly traded corporation?

JC: This is one of the penetrating questions about our business. Can corporations that are not family-controlled produce excellent newspapers? The returns aren’t in, but it’s not looking good. Newspaper-owning corporations — and I mean all of them, not just my own employer — have an unwritten pact with Wall Street that requires unsustainably high profit levels. Each year, newspapers shed reporters, editors, photographers, designers and newshole. Each year, readers get less. Each year many of those readers turn elsewhere for their news. Professor Phil Meyer has plotted our oblivion, which, as I recall, comes in less than two generations. As I say, we are on an unsustainable course. The old family-owned papers had their flaws, but at least the owners tried to preserve them for their children and grandchildren.

It’s important that the Los Angeles Times remain firmly in the top tier — important to the community, important to journalism, important to the national conversation. There’s no other newsgathering engine this formidable west of Manhattan. The nation’s voice should not be monopolized by New York and Washington.

PM: Given what happened recently at the Cleveland Plain Dealer, and the subsequent “clarification” memos that went out at papers elsewhere regarding the use of anonymous sources, do you worry that Time Inc.’s decision to hand over Matt Cooper’s notes will exacerbate the already divergent priorities of the corporation and the journalist?

JC: Without specific reference to the decision at Time, I’m very concerned about what amounts to a sustained legal assault against reporters who use confidential sources. Without unnamed sources, how could we cover — to take one example — the CIA and other intelligence services? A running dialogue between individual reporters and individual public servants is essential to democratic self-government. Without credible agreements of confidentiality, that dialogue will dry up. I’m not sure the public fully appreciates this.

PM: Blogger Mickey Kaus has been a harsh critic of the Los Angeles Times for what he terms its “historic faux-East-Coast confusion of stiff journalism with serious journalism.” Do you think his criticisms carry any weight?

JC: I take it as unintended tribute to the Los Angeles Times that Mickey devotes so much time to it. When Otis Chandler rebuilt the Los Angeles Times, starting in 1960, he and his editors undoubtedly used East Coast papers, particularly the New York Times, as models. That served the paper well; its journalistic growth was spectacular. I feel, however, that we still need work on our own, unique voice — a voice of California. That voice is developing, but my successor will have to keep at it. As to “stiff” journalism, I wish Mickey knew the efforts we’ve taken to encourage clear, imaginative writing and to discourage the bureaucratic style. Obviously that, too, still needs some work.

Paul McLeary is senior editor of Defense Technology International magazine, and is a former CJR staffer.