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So What Do You Do, Russ Stanton, Editor, LA Times?

The fourth EIC in three years tells us what's really going on in the newsroom

By David S. Hirschman - June 4, 2008
Taking the helm of one of the largest, most respected newspapers in America is usually the apex of a traditional journalist's career trajectory -- the top rung on a ladder that, until recently, seemed relatively straightforward. But when you assume the position in the midst of an unparalleled industry-wide meltdown, as the fourth editor-in-chief in three years in a newsroom ravaged by cuts and turmoil and recently bought by a zany billionaire, the prize position comes with more angst than it used to.

But if Russ Stanton isn't optimistic about the future, he's not letting on. A 10-year veteran of the Los Angeles Times, and the 14th editor in the paper's history, Stanton talked to about the challenges the Times is facing, what the paper hopes to do online, and what life is like under Sam Zell.

Name: Russ Stanton
Position: Editor-in-chief, Los Angeles Times
Resume: 27 years in the newspaper industry, 10 at the Times. He began as a business reporter at Southern California papers like the Orange County Register, the Riverside Press-Enterprise and the San Bernardino County Sun. At the Times, he worked his way through slots as technology editor and business editor before he was named last year to the newly created post of innovation editor, where he was charged with integrating the paper's print and online operations. He was named editor of the Times in February.
Education: California State University, Sacramento undergrad. 1984 fellow of the Herbert J. Davenport Economics Program at the University of Missouri
Hometown: Tulare, California
Birthdate: Dec. 24, 1958
Marital status: Married
First section of the Sunday New York Times (and Sunday LA Times): Book Review
Favorite TV show: The Unit
Last book read: Privileged Son: Otis Chandler and the Rise and Fall of the LA Times Dynasty by Dennis McDougal
Guilty pleasure: Celebrity Q&A in Parade magazine on Sundays

You took over as editor in the midst of a very tumultuous period in the paper's history. Are things quieting down? How's morale?
I think they're starting to [quiet down] and I think our morale is beginning to come back to where people are focused solely on doing great work and good stories and terrific journalism. I try to remind people every day that we still put out a big, huge hell of a newspaper and a really terrific Web site every day, and that's what we need to be focused on and nothing else.

Your predecessors left due to disagreements with management about the editorial budget, policy, and newsroom cuts. Have these been resolved to some extent?
No. And I don't think they'll ever be resolved. Our industry is changing, seemingly month-to-month, across a whole number of spectrums, including the financial ones. Things haven't gotten any better than they were for some of my predecessors, and in some cases the situation has gotten worse. But as I said during what I would jokingly call my "inauguration day," I'm tired of not having a plan.

We're in this mode where we are reacting to everything -- and our reaction is always to make cuts and reduce. I get that we may have to be a smaller news organization here at some point in the near future, but that doesn't mean that we can't be a great paper and a great Web site. One of the great things about this paper is that the ambition is still really high, and we still have the swagger and attitude of a paper that, when I got here, had 1,300 newsroom employees. We're now down in the low 800s, and so we just have to pick our spots a bit better.

You were previously in charge of integrating the Web and print newsrooms at the paper. How integrated are they now, and how does your last job inform your strategy for the future?
We got to a pretty good start last year, but even in my previous job I felt we weren't moving fast enough and we didn't go deep enough in the integration, so that's going to be a huge part of what I want to accomplish in the first year on this job. We have some physical limitations [in terms of the building structure] and we've got to do a fairly substantial remodel to pull that off. But the plan is, when we finish that off, to have a fully integrated newsroom on one floor.

"I've not gotten any indication at all that they're intending to get rid of us."

As you look for ways to improve the Web site, what are some of the Web 2.0 concepts that seem most interesting? How about citizen journalism or social networking?
I am pretty intrigued by citizen journalism. I think that there might be a way for us to do it that doesn't give away the hallowed territory of "who does the journalism." I think there are ways we can address that. One of the things the site is going to be rolling out over the next couple of months are neighborhood pages that are zip code-centric, and that have crime, real estate, and school test-score data that you can sort and play around with for your local area. And as part of those sites we'll have news from that smaller community, and we'll let users help us fill out that part of the thing. Also, we currently have a print entertainment guide that comes out on Thursday that's all about what to do in Southern California -- and online we involved users a great deal.

On the social networking thing, we have a new feature called ICU. I think social networking is something that we've got to figure out how to host so that we can be the gathering place for Southern California.

Any changes to the print edition that you have coming up in the near future?
Yes. One of the things that we spent a fair amount of time on since I started this job is gathering together the senior editorial leadership, and we've had a series of daylong meetings over the past couple of months to try and re-imagine the paper, knowing that our advertising revenue is not going up at this stage. We need to refigure how we do things, and we're on track to deliver a plan to the publisher in late June on how we do some of that stuff. I don't think it's going to be a radically different L.A. Times when all is said and done. I think there are some more things we can do in terms of different kinds of storytelling besides what is a 35-inch story, and we've been dabbling in that over the past couple of years, particularly in the sports and business sections.

How many years will it be until there is no print edition of the L.A. Times?
One hundred twenty-six [laughs]. But, you know, somebody, somewhere soon is going to throw in the towel on print. For us, I think that for now, our core base of readers are the baby boomers, and I think that we've got at least another 35-year run in print. On the other hand, someone, somewhere is going to grow the revenue from online enough that it can support a newsroom of our size and talent. And when that happens, that's when you can start, if you so choose, to pull the plug on the paper. If you have the revenue to pay for the journalism, you can eliminate the print. I mean, the people are only half of the cost -- the stuff that costs so much are the paper and the presses you need to print the darn thing. But I don't see that happening around here in my lifetime.

The paper's editorial page recently came out against proposition 98, which was kind of a bold move considering that one of Zell's companies donated money in support of it. Was this a difficult issue to manage at all? Did you inform Zell of the editorial beforehand? And how is dealing with him as a boss, generally?
I haven't talked to the guy since two days before I got this job. I met him before I was named, and he told me then that he wasn't going to screw around with the editorial stance of the paper. I actually don't control the editorial pages here -- that's done by a guy named Jim Newton -- but we didn't tell him beforehand and he probably read about it like everyone else. And I think if anyone was worried about our editorial independence, I think we answered that question right there.

Newsday was sold recently, and that was one of the Tribune properties that Zell had said he was hoping to hold on to. Have you heard anything from him that would indicate a change in his plans for you all?
From the conversation I had with him, and the internal communications I see -- as well as talk with the publisher every week -- I think he's made pretty clear that he's not happy. He felt like the conditions of our industry, and some of our papers in particular, have declined a lot in a relatively short amount of time -- and I think he's surprised about it, he's not happy about it, and I don't think it was ever in his plan to sell any of the media properties. That said, selling Newsday and the Cubs buys us a tremendous amount of breathing room over the next couple of years, in particular, and will allow us to reinvent what we do and get ourselves back on terra firma, and back in a position where we can grow. I've not gotten any indication at all that they're intending to get rid of us.

David S. Hirschman is a freelance writer and editor of's Daily Newsfeed.

[This interview has been edited for length and clarity.]

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