By Hillel Aron
By Joseph Tsidulko
By Patrick Range McDonald
By David Futch
By Hillel Aron
By Dennis Romero
By Jill Stewart
By Dennis Romero
How did you get hired at theL.A. Times? Who started the process?
Recently, my role at The New York Timeshad changed. Earlier in 2004, I went from being the writer to the assistant editor of the page, so I was settling in to that gig. Initially, I could just blissfully write my own pieces, and not worry about anything else. In 2003, I spent a lot of time and energy working on one series railing against farm subsidies in the U.S. and other rich nations, pegged to the WTO talks. There was a lot of reporting involved, and it was a great excuse to get out of the building. It was making the case on how devastating our subsidies are to the developing world, and the hypocrisy of us preaching free trade when it’s convenient, but when it comes to agriculture, we don’t really believe in free trade because we don’t want them to be as competitive. I went to Vietnam, Japan, Burkina Faso, France, Texas and Florida. [The series] was called, “Harvesting Poverty.” I was a finalist for the Pulitzer and lost out to the Los Angeles Times’ Bill Stall. Then I was editing other writers, and I still was able to do some writing.
I got a call totally out of the blue from Michael Kinsley. I’d always been a big fan of Michael’s going back to reading the New Republic in college, and seeing what he’d done at Slate. I thought he was the most accomplished opinion journalist that I could point to. I was a great admirer of his column, and what he thought.
Also, I had a California hankering. I loved living in New York, but I always found the place a bit provincial. I just never bought into the notion that it’s the center of the universe. I thought California was a more important place. And I was intrigued by L.A., though I confess I had not spent that much time here. And I grew up in Mexico.
I was born in Mexico City, and I grew up in Chihuahua. My Dad is Mexican, my Mom is American. My father was in business, he worked for Coke for many years and then for a beer company called Femsa. I think that was part of the appeal of L.A. I’ve always been very fond of the Southwest and California, having grown up in Mexico, and that fact that this is such a Mexican city, along with so many other things. That definitely made it very appealing. And I was getting a little restless, and the next move would have been to go overseas. And Kinsley said the L.A. Times had a lot of momentum. The people in New York were very admiring of what Dean and John had done. When I started at The New York Times, I don’t think anybody got a copy of the national edition of the Los Angeles Times and read it. By the time I left, I think everyone considered it a must read.
Haven’t they done away with that national edition?
Yes, they’ve since done away with it. [Laughs.] Now everyone’s more conditioned to looking online. It was still a tough decision to leave a great career at The New York Times. I also had a conversation with the publisher in New York when they were trying to keep me.
Pinch [the nickname for Arthur Sulzberger Jr.]?
I said I just think L.A. is really interesting. So he said, well, go there, but go there for us. We’ll even give you sun-tan lotion. I think some people at the NYTare just shocked that anybody would deign to leave. At the same time, people recognized it was a pretty cool opportunity. My one reason I paused was that the counter offer from The New York Times was to dangle some options before me, like to go overseas as a foreign correspondent in Delhi, Rio, Mexico City. All of a sudden, anything seemed possible.
That’s the only reason why the decision was somewhat difficult. On the one hand, I was being offered an ideal gig in the world of journalism working with someone I’d always admired in a place I was interested in going. But, on the other hand, part of me was thinking it might be cool to shift gears and go into a different type of journalism and get back into reporting... And everybody assumed I was wrestling with leaving The New York Times, or with The New York Times versus the Tribune Company. It had nothing to do with that. It just had more to do with narrative arc in life. Did I want to recommit to doing opinion journalism for a lot longer? And, in the end, I decided it was too good an opportunity to pass up. And John Carroll was very reassuring on that.
When did you first sit down with your new boss, Jeff Johnson?
I forget if it was late July or early August. It was a very healthy exercise because he really spent a lot of time. We met four or five times for more than an hour, closer to two hours, each time. And he hadn’t been in on the original deal of bringing me out with the expectation that I would necessarily succeed Kinsley. So I wanted to be very respectful of that. There were two things. That was one. And the other was that we were having this reorganization where the publisher was going to take more direct control of the editorial page, which I thought was great. But I thought he needed to be very comfortable with whomever was going to assume this role. I didn’t want to be presumptuous, as if the job was necessarily mine. But I tried to get him up to speed on what we do, and how we were trying to do it, and ways in which we could continue tinkering with the thing, and my vision of what we ought to be about. So I think there was a meeting of the minds there. I mean, the process took a month and a half or so because this was all new to him. And he got up to speed.