Sunday, October 4, 2009

A Sad 25th Anniversary

Here's an essay by former exec Bob Rawitch about the demise of the Valley Edition which was launched on Oct. 4, 1984. It was written for the OFS, a group of retired Times Mirror employees. It is followed by a note from former publisher Tom Johnson. And here is a slideshow from the night the Valley plant closed
A Sad 25th Anniversary


It was 25 years ago tomorrow, Oct. 4, 1984, that the Valley Edition of the Times was launched. At its peak, we had about 100 staffers in Editorial alone. Today’s Times has one or two people hunting for stories in the San Fernando Valley, home to about 1.5 million people.

The decision to launch the edition was something for which as Suburban Editor I had lobbied for several years because Jack Kent Cooke bought the old Valley News and Greensheet, a throw-away, and had announced it was turning it into a paid-circulation daily newspaper. This was a real threat to the Times Valley circulation base of about 180,000, I argued to senior management, initially to no avail. Of course the major focus was on Orange County and the battle against the Register as OC, as it came to be known, was growing by leaps and bounds. It is hard to believe the Times now delivers the Register. What a strange media world it now is as everyone struggles to survive. Even more ironically, Otis Chandler back then told me one day he was glad it was Cooke who bought the paper instead of Tribune Co. “because Tribune knows how to run a newspaper, Cooke doesn’t!”

The paper in 1983 had already started building the Valley plant in Chatsworth to expand press capacity so we could have greater use of color generally and a separate daily full color Sports section for the upcoming ’84 Olympics in Los Angeles. In January I was in the buffet line in the old Picasso Room next to Otis who nonchalantly said, “Bob, I think it is time we start a daily edition in the Valley.” And just like that Dennis Britton and I headed a task force to set things in motion to study the issue and put together a plan. By the summer, a second-story news room was being constructed atop the press room and I was frantically hiring 36 reporters, editors, photographers and copy and news editors for an edition that would have “go up” pages in the old Metro section. Page three would be an open page for Valley news and the succeeding pages local Valley news and then L.A. news again.

Otis one day touring the steel-beamed structure with me went to the northwest counter of what would be the newsroom, looked over at the Santa Susana Mountains and said “this would be a great place for me to have an office.” I responded, “It’s your building, you can have an office anywhere you want.” He just laughed and of course did not have an office at the plant, though his late son Norman, until a brain tumor forced him into early retirement, was superintendent of the production facility there for a while.

Not everyone within editorial was a fan of the Valley Edition. Suburban was rapidly expanding its staff while Metro was not. Late in the week, we had as many as 12-14 pages of local ads and news that would precede the jumps from Metro front stories. There were the inevitable conflicts with Metro, often because they wanted our top stories for the Metro front. We usually agreed, but there were some days they’d want two or three stories, leaving our Valley display page weak. Other days, when news was slow in a huge geographic area that had no governmental agencies of its own, we struggled to fill from four to 12 pages with local news. Charles Carter, who went on to become editor of the National Law Journal, was Valley Editor. Drex Heikes, who subsequently held a number of senior positions within the Times and is now editor of L.A. Weekly, was city editor.

We hired a top quality staff and tried to provide excellent reporting and writing to Valley readers, similar to full run parts of the paper. But more than anything, we stopped using Suburban as a dumping ground or training ground, fulfilling a pledge that Noel Greenwood made to me when I became Suburban Editor in 1981. We hired people from the Rocky Mountain News, Kansas City Star, Dallas Morning News, Bergen Record, Ft. Lauderdale Sentinel and other major dailies. Many of the people we hired moved on to Metro, National and Foreign positions as reporters or editors. Michael Connelly, who wrote his first novel on the side while covering the police and Superior Court in Van Nuys, has gone on to become one of the nation’s leading crime novelists.

The good days lasted through the mid '90s when the paper started a series of buyouts and then the paper’s first layoffs in history. Unfortunately, as for the rest of the Times, it was the beginning of a slow decline for the newspaper, ending with the complete closure of the Valley Edition. A few years later the production facility was shut down and the $100 million plant was sold to become a Bratz dolls manufacturing plant. The smaller daily Ventura Edition, started in March 1990, is also now gone. Only Steve Chawkins, one of the original staffers, is still in Ventura where he covers the region now.

The editorial successes of both editions are too many to recount, but the paper won two Pulitzer prizes for coverage of the 1994 Northridge earthquake and a subsequent Van Nuys shootout, in great measure with the contributions of Valley staffers. Scores of successful journalists’ careers were launched. And those of us who were a part of those two editions had a hell of a good time while it lasted.


On Bob Rawitch's "Saturday Story" (Oct. 3) on the L.A. Times Valley Edition:

Long after we both left Times Mirror, Otis Chandler and I were puzzled why the suburban editions were shuttered. Readership and advertising revenues had grown to a point where the suburban and zoned editions had excellent pretax operating profits. They provided strong local news to local areas. They provided advertisers that could not afford full run a targeted circulation area with terrific sales results. Of this we were certain, Bob Rawitch and his Valley edition news staff were splendid. That was true of all the advertising, operations, circulation, and news staffs in the zoned and suburban editions. It is very painful to look back at so many of the significant mistakes that weakened a magnificent newspaper.

--Tom Johnson

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