Flooding the apathy zone

The Los Angeles Times sends a team of reporters and a star columnist to battle civic disengagement, with impressive results--even if turnout was only 16 percent

SANTA BARBARA, CA — Let’s get an understatement out of the way: Your average citizen of Los Angeles is not a politics and policy junkie. The stoner Angeleno who finds Election Day sort of, like, hard to remember is a character so enduring that even Cheech and Chong have riffed on the theme. And while reality may not quite conform to the stereotype, given the city’s reputation for civic apathy, and the budget pressures legacy media organizations continue to face, the Los Angeles Times might have been excused this year if it pared back a bit on coverage of a local election that did not include any national names.

Instead, the Times has put obvious, and commendable, effort and resources into outlining what’s at stake in city and school board races, explaining how management of the city has gone astray, and trying—by way of education, exhortation, and even plain old shaming—to get Los Angeles engaged with local elections. The news coverage has been intensive by any measure, with eight reporters—some political veterans just returned from covering the 2012 presidential race, some drawn from local government beats—devoting the bulk of their time to the campaign. That’s not to mention significant contributions from the Times’s data desk and enterprise reporters, says Rich Connell, the former investigative reporter turned city-county bureau chief who is directing the paper’s coverage of the election, the first round of which took place on March 5. (A mayoral runoff between City Councilman Eric Garcetti and City Controller Wendy Greuel is set for May 21.)

Connell attributes the focus to two factors: the Times’s tradition of heavy coverage of city elections, and decisions by what he calls “the masthead editors” to continue that tradition as part of a more general refocusing of the paper’s resources on California.

A high point of the paper’s local election efforts was a front-page column by Steve Lopez, published the day after the election, that got in the collective face of Los Angeles voters. It started this way:

Mark the date, remember the day.

On March 5, 2013, Los Angeles redefined apathy.

A measly 16% of the city’s registered voters — or perhaps around 20% once all the mail-in ballots are counted — turned out in an election with the following things at stake:

How much we pay in sales tax, who controls the nation’s second-largest school district, who might fill nine City Council seats and three community college board positions, and who will serve as city attorney, city controller and mayor.

This is late-night TV joke territory, as in:

“Election officials were stunned in Los Angeles on Tuesday when 16% of the city’s voters cast ballots. They couldn’t believe that many people knew there was an election.”

The column was one in a remarkable series. Between late January and the March 5 election, Lopez saucily called for a mayor worthy of LA; sternly told mayoral candidates that they were dodging major budget issues; scored an interview with low-key union boss Brian D’Arcy, who’s at the center of the money-and-manpower influence game behind the mayoral race; explained how New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s $1 million donation to a “pro-reform” group was distorting Los Angeles school board races with “junk ads”; and dragged readers to the Korean Resource Center, which has been working—fairly successfully, it seems—to increase voter turnout in the city’s Korean community.

In decades past, of course, cityside news columnists would have been expected to focus on local elections during local election season. But Steve Lopez is not your average cityside columnist. Lopez is a bona fide star, the guy who wrote the book, The Soloist, that became the movie in which Robert Downey Jr. plays far-from-average cityside news columnist Steve Lopez. And this is Los Angeles, the city that by reputation couldn’t care less about municipal government. And the election was happening smack in the middle of Academy Awards season.

And Steve Lopez is covering the … mayor’s race? Yes, and happily.

“There’s great drama in local politics like this,” Lopez said. “One of the great things about L.A. is it’s just an inspired mess.”

High profile as they are, Lopez’s columns have been just an adjunct to the paper’s sustained news coverage of the election, which has included a steady series of deep stories about the role of moneyed interests, particularly public employee unions, in the race. Then there’s the 44-column-inch, page-one piece that explained, in detail, the roots of the continuing financial disaster at City Hall. Reported and written by veteran city watchdog David Zahniser, projects reporter Jessica Garrison, and national correspondent Ralph Vartabedian, the article looked at decisions to hire hundreds of police officers and give 20,000 or so city workers 25 percent pay raises over five years, just before the Great Recession began—and at the role three mayoral candidates, including front-runners Garcetti and Greuel, played in those decisions.

This large archive of follow-the-money reportage has been extended on the Web with a spreadsheet tracking outside expenditures in the mayoral campaign. Then there’s the data desk’s webpage on the race, which offers an interactive map that compares voting patterns in this and prior city elections, as well as features that spell out candidates’ positions in both text and video formats.

Though it may be consistent with the paper’s legacy, the Times’s heavy investment in local elections runs against broader trends across the media industry. A recent Pew Research Center report, for example, notes that politics coverage on local TV newscasts has virtually disappeared. And as Steve Waldman wrote this week for CJR, for all the virtues of the digital news ecosystem, local accountability journalism is imperiled in many markets.

The Times has certainly not been immune to financial retrenchment, with cutbacks reducing the editorial head count from, by Lopez’s reckoning, about 1,200 when he came to the paper 12 years ago to roughly half that number today. Connell acknowledges that he faced competition for resources when planning to cover this year’s election. But, Connell says, the tradition of taking reporters from the presidential campaign (where the Times also did strong work, Walter Shapiro wrote for CJR) and throwing them into coverage of the mayor’s race remains alive and well. Although Connell had to start coverage a bit later than he wished, by the start of the year, the resources for full coverage were in place.

The question of how long those old traditions will last—and whether such heavy staffing of local elections can continue—remains open. The choice between covering local elections with teams of veteran journalists and running less expensive but perhaps more clickable fare is one that every newsroom in the country faces. For every civic-minded voter who’s smiling at the Times’s wall-to-wall election coverage, there may be—in fact, probably are—dozens of readers (or even worse, non-readers) wondering what’s up with all the stories about these Garcetti and Greuel characters, whoever they are. And there is no denying that coverage as comprehensive as the Times’s will almost inevitably produce (and this year, has produced) its share of dull recaps of debates in which almost nothing new was debated.

For now, though, the Times’s focus is clear: Cover the election, hard, and make the decisions based on editorial judgment and journalistic values. The Web is explicitly included when coverage is planned; Connell noted that he can reach out “and almost touch” the data desk from his work station, making it easy to sort out collaborations “without a lot of scheduled meetings.” But though he’s the assigning editor for election coverage, Web traffic hasn’t been a significant part of the discussion at Connell’s level. When I asked how the Times’s election coverage has performed online, he said, “I can sit here and tell you I honestly don’t know. I’m more of an old-school content guy.”

The fate of the Times’s local coverage ultimately may depend on something more immediate than the long-term industry trends described in the Pew report. Now that it has emerged from seemingly interminable bankruptcy proceedings, the Tribune Company has hired financial advisers to help it plan the sale of its newspapers, including the Chicago Tribune and the Los Angeles Times. Rumored bidders for the Times have included a series of deep-pocketed people and entities, ranging from local investor-philanthropist Eli Broad to the industrialist Koch brothers. Asked what effect he thinks new owners might have on election coverage, Connell diplomatically said that all will be well, if the current newsroom leadership remains in place.

When I pushed for more detail, he laughed and gave a true line-editor response: “You know, I’m just trying to work the situation in front of me.”

It’s the same assignment everyone at the Times will face, if and when new owners emerge.

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John Mecklin is the California and Nevada correspondent for the United States Project, CJR's politics and policy desk. He is the deputy editor of the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists. Follow him on Twitter @meckdevil. Tags: ,