By Michael Goldstein
By Dennis Romero
By Sarah Fenske
By Matthew Mullins
By Patrick Range McDonald
By LA Weekly
By Dennis Romero
By Simone Wilson
The Latino Initiative was launched in late 1998. Ten reporters and one photographer were assigned beats across the newspaper, ranging from Latino culture to sports, health, media and labor. The reporters were Latino and non-Latino. Del Olmo served as the Latino Initiative’s chief watchdog. By sheer numbers, the initiative appeared to be working. According to del Olmo’s papers, in 1999 there were 400 “Latino” stories in the paper. By 2002, after Parks’ departure and the arrival of the Tribune Co., del Olmo recorded 553, more than half of them by non-Latino staffers.
But there were problems almost immediately. Some reporters on the team wrote to del Olmo about resistance among mid- and lower-level editors toward Latino Initiative assignments. Others complained that membership on the team was becoming a hindrance to their advancement in the newsroom. The overwhelming complaint was that the initiative was pandering. When I bring up this criticism to Parks during our interview, the former editor pauses, and then shrugs. “Yeah, you know. My starting point was, What is good journalism? And where are we failing?”
Despite the initiative’s admirable origins, the del Olmo papers and more recent interviews show how it led to an accommodating, almost condescending tone in so-called Latino coverage. Stories that seemed to have no discernible “Latino” angle were dubbed as such nonetheless. Nancy Cleeland, who worked on the initiative and later became the paper’s labor writer, says the project was well-meaning but often “silly.”
Once, she and another reporter went to Las Vegas to write about working-class Latinos migrating there from L.A. The reporters came across a moving truck with California plates, but saw that the family was black, not Latino. “We had to say, okay, well, they’re not going to fit, and that was just crazy, because really the story should have been why working-class people were leaving L.A. Everything got twisted a little.”
At the same time, one young reporter wrote a letter to del Olmo in 1999 expressing frustration over editors rejecting her story ideas. “It has been difficult understanding exactly what I am expected to do,” reads the letter as found in the CSUN archives. “There seems to be a waning enthusiasm for our initiative and for Latino-themed stories among my editors.”
Parks and del Olmo, upon launching the project, told the newsroom that the Latino Initiative would ideally “work its way out of existence.” This meant that the initiative would seep into all aspects of the paper and become second nature throughout the newsroom, with Latino coverage eventually becoming viewed as simply general coverage.
This never happened. Parks had an inglorious fall from power in 1999 when the Staples Center scandal erupted and the paper lost ethical credibility with the exposure of a profit-sharing agreement with Staples Center over a special issue. When Tribune took over, new editor John Carroll immediately placed an emphasis on strong national and international news, with multiple Pulitzer wins as the prize. On this front, Carroll and later Dean Baquet succeeded wildly.
“I have high regard for Carroll and Baquet, but they never made Latino coverage a top priority,” says Sotomayor, who left in 2005 in one of Tribune’s buyouts. “Both came from East Coast newspapers, and they brought in a Newsday editor to run local and state coverage. In a short time, the Latino Initiative withered and died, and key journalists left for other positions.”
Besides Sotomayor, the paper under Tribune lost several other prominent Mexican-American staffers — including Ramos, Oscar Garza, David Olmos, Barbara Serrano, Paul Gutierrez and Sergio Muñoz, among others — though venerable columnist Al Martinez remains, and Steve Lopez (who goes out of his way to say he’s Spanish, not Mexican) has had a huge impact on the city with his columns. Carroll told senior Mexican-American staffers that he intended to hire more Latinos. But solid candidates were often overlooked in favor of national-level star bylines. Carroll founded a high school journalism program, meant to build a potential pool of future local hires, but Baquet, who left Spring Street as a national martyr, valiantly standing up to his Tribune bosses over proposed newsroom cuts, killed the program under that same cost-cutting pressure.
“They were looking for projects and prizes,” one staffer says of Carroll and Baquet, “not L.A. coverage.”
Carroll did not respond to a request for an interview. Baquet says he’s spending time with his family and not taking work-related calls.
Community activist Hernandez says that the Times’ tendency to hire editors and reporters from other parts of the country results in a metropolitan paper led by people who seem to have no connection to the city. She also thinks the paper isn’t doing enough to understand and address the city’s most historically rooted subgroup, Mexican-Americans. Putting the word Latino in a headline won’t do it for her.
“I’m a Latina, but I happen to be a resident of L.A. I don’t care only about Latino issues; I care about all issues impacting my community. But they don’t see themselves as a local paper, whether it’s local Westside, local Eastside, local Southside. They don’t cover our community.”
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