Steve Hymon on the Los Angeles River, the Mayor and a Pair of Goldfish

The Los Angeles Times reporter on how and why two goldfish came to live in a tank full of river water, and found virtual celebrity on the paper's Web site.

Little Ed and Little Antonio

Steve Hymon is a reporter for the Los Angeles Times. Since 2003, he has reported on various beats for the paper including the environment, health care, and city hall. He formerly worked as an editor at Outdoor Explorer and as a reporter for Sports Illustrated.

Felix Gillette: In recent months you’ve been covering Los Angeles’ nascent plans for the redevelopment of the woebegone Los Angeles River. Back in March, as part of your coverage, you came up with an “extremely amateurish experiment” to gauge the cleanliness of the river. In short, you bought two goldfish and put them in a tank filled with river water to see if they’d survive. Here we are some 30 days later. Not only are the fish still alive but they’ve become internet celebrities of sorts, thanks to the Times’ groundbreaking GoldfishCam.

What inspired you to do this?

Steve Hymon: I write a political notes column every couple weeks out of city hall. I’m in charge of covering the city council of Los Angeles. One of the long-running issues in this town has been what to do with the Los Angeles River, which, decades ago, was lined with concrete. There’s some momentum these days to make the river look more natural.

I kept thinking about how to make this story interesting. It’s the same question I ask myself about everything at city hall: Why would anyone give a damn about this, who doesn’t work in city hall?

I was sitting around one Monday morning, and it dawned on me — wouldn’t it be interesting if (a) there were fish actually living in the river as some people allege, or (b) if we could put fish in the river and see how they did. So I grabbed a council staffer who knew the neighborhood well, and who knew how to get down to the river. Most people don’t even know how to find the river. Unlike rivers in a lot of cities, there are not a lot of access points. And, in fact, a lot of the access points have been fenced off to keep cars out of there because it used to be a place to go drag racing.

Anyway, I decided to keep it basic. We’ll get a couple of common goldfish, get some water out of the river, throw them in a tank and see what happens. I was just looking for a cute and somewhat interesting first item for the column. So that’s what we did.

I thought it would be a one-day story. But what happened was that our Internet people saw the story the next day. In brainstorming they said, well, why don’t we set up a goldfish cam — put a camera next to the tank and let people on our Web site look at the fish. And they did it. And people started actually watching it.

FG: Your experiment seems to be blazing new ground in the relationship between newspapers, the Internet, and goldfish. Have your editors at the Times been supportive?

SH: My immediate editor liked the idea a lot. I don’t know if he ran it by other people. But certainly after it ran, other editors commented on it. They said they liked it. The piece ran about three-and-a-half weeks ago, and I’m still working here.

Among our higher-ups, I would expect that there are some who really like it, and some who think it is the stupidest, silliest thing they’ve ever seen. That’s basically been the reaction among readers. Either they say it’s brilliant and silly and irreverent but it touches upon an important issue, or they say this is the single stupidest thing I’ve ever read in my lifetime in the Los Angeles Times. There’s sort of a polarizing effect.

FG: You named the goldfish Little Antonio, after Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa, and Little Ed, after Councilman Ed Reyes, a supporter of the river redevelopment. What do the mayor and the councilmember think of your experiment, and is there any precedent for this in L.A. politics?

SH: I’m not sure. Probably people have previously named things after the politicians they covered. Most of it, I’m sure, wasn’t motivated by flattery. In this case, it wasn’t meant to be disrespectful. Right before the piece ran, I got worried that maybe it was the one thing we should pull back on. Ultimately, though, they both liked it.

The councilman who is in charge of the river committee actually came down to see the fish. I think he was both amused by it and also thought it was kind of cool because it would be an entrĂ©e to get people interested in the river. He’s aware that the river has been talked about to death in the city.

FG: What about the mayor?

SH: Both the mayor himself and his staff pay very, very close attention to what the press is saying about him. As it turns out, I got a couple of calls from his staff the next day. They thought it was hilarious. He ultimately sent a note over and a can of fish food.

FG: Aside from the fact that Little Ed has started developing little black spots on his person, the two goldfish are doing pretty well. Are you surprised?

SH: Yes and no. Goldfish are a very hearty species. There’s a reason why they are given away at carnivals … The water was fetched from the river during the dry river flows, which means it wasn’t raining. And most of the water that was in the river at the time is actually coming from one of the city’s sewage plants. In other words, it was extremely highly treated sewage. While treated sewage sounds disgusting, my hunch was that it was not off-the-scale horrific.

FG: Do you think this experiment has the potential to change people’s perception of the river?

SH: Probably not. Let’s face it: at best, this is science at the first- or second-grade level. There’s no control. We don’t have fish in a tank in tap water next to it. So it’s amateurish.

Probably, you could accuse it of being a little bit of a publicity stunt. That said, maybe it got a few people who weren’t so intrigued by the river, a little bit more interested in it. All I can ask for is that the next time I write about the river in a serious manner, maybe people will pay a little more attention.

FG: Do you know if there are any fish currently living in the Los Angeles River?

SH: Most of river is lined with concrete, both on the bottom and on the sides. That said, parts of it were never lined. There are places where there are pools. Councilman Ed Reyes, as a kid, he used to go down and swim in these pools. He and his brothers would catch catfish there. Catfish, like goldfish, are a pretty hearty species.

So I don’t think it’s impossible. But we don’t know. There will be a fishing derby on the horizon for this political notes column. We’re going to find out for real. It’s the logical next step. I’m an angler. Once the wet weather dissipates out here, I think myself and hopefully some of our electeds might be heading down to the river with some fishing poles.

FG: Is the fishing derby your idea?

SH: Yeah. Again, I think it’s sort of like a Sasquatch or a yeti expedition. It’s off the scale for bad science. But the next logical question is, is there anything in there?

FG: Do you have any other journalistic “experiments” is the works?

SH: It’s not so much an experiment, but I’d like to grab some folks from some of our local bird-watching societies out here, and go out and do a count one day. See what’s there. The place where I scooped the water out of the river, the thing that surprised me was that there were a ton of ducks swimming around.

FG: I noticed that Little Ed and Little Antonio have their own MySpace page. As their custodian, do you worry about Internet predators? Like maybe some cat lurking online, pretending to be a goldfish?

SH: I can’t say I’m too worried.

FG: Is there any timeframe for pulling the plug on the Goldfish cam?

SH: I guess what you’re asking is: do we have an exit strategy for this experiment. The answer would be, absolutely no.

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Felix Gillette writes about the media for The New York Observer.