How did that come about?
It’s amusing. I was writing editorials in Pittsburgh. In 1997, my wife got a great gig in N.Y. She was leaving her boring law firm job to work for the Center for Reproductive Rights. And, despite the fact I was very happy in Pittsburgh, we decided we wanted to go back to N.Y. I sent résumés everywhere, including at the NYT, both the newsroom and the editorial board. But I didn’t even get a post card back.
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They’re calling me assuming I’m still sitting in Pittsburgh earnestly writing editorials. My first thought was, this’ll be funny because I’m at home writing this wacky book and they’ll think this isn’t high-brow enough for the NYT editorial board. I did this first-person account of blowing $50,000 in Vegas. The whole purpose of the book was to have the publisher front me the money. It was sort of reality TV before there was reality TV. I thought this would be a strike against me. But Howell actually got a kick out of it.
Didn’t he write a book on fly-fishing?
Exactly. I worked under Howell for a year, then he went down to take over the newsroom, and his successor was Gail Collins, who’s still there. She took over maybe the week before 9/11.
What did you learn, or not learn while at The New York Times?
That’s an interesting question. Writing editorials at the NYT, once you shook off the stage fright of the first couple, was not all that different from writing editorials for the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. Obviously, the readership was quite different. But the self-importance of the institution can be oppressive at The New York Times. It starts hurting the honesty of an editorial page if you get too impressed with your own role in the process. And, at The New York Times, there was a tendency to get too caught up with the fact that we’re a player at the table. But I must say that Gail has been really good about not being overly impressed with the institutional role. But I was forced to think about that.
How was it different when you got out to the LAT a year ago?
This is now my third editorial page. And I thought the core elements of the exercise in New York weren’t that different from Pittsburgh, so I thought there would be a lot of continuity coming out here. The thing I had to remind myself is that the L.A. Times is more influential in L.A. than The New York Times is in New York. The mayor of New York City probably cares more what the [New York] Post and the [New York] Daily News thinks about him than The New York Times. It’s a more competitive environment media-wise there. And here, it’s basically us, and you guys, and the Daily News, but it’s not the same. Here, everything is more diffused, and you have more impact as an editorial page.
Do you see the L.A. Times as a national paper or a local paper?
The debate out here about whether or not we’re a national paper I find sort of tiresome. It’s a semantics game. I don’t think what you cover should be dictated by where your readers are. It should be dictated by what your readers are interested in. And I think it’s insulting to people in L.A. to pretend that they’re not interested in national or foreign issues. Any paper has a sort of balancing act they have to go through in terms of covering local versus the outside world. When I first arrived, I was amazed at how all-consuming some people found this existential argument over whether we’re a national paper or not. It just seems a big distraction.
Are you talking about the argument outside the paper? Inside the paper?
I think it’s both. Plugged-in members of any community think they have a sense of ownership over the paper. And I think it’s always been an issue for the L.A. Times internally.