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E-Media Tidbits from the Poynter Institute is group blog by some of the sharper writers about online journalism and publishing. A good way to keep up

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November 14, 2003

Exit, Voice and Loyalty at the Los Angeles Times

Dean Baquet, number two at the LA Times, went to New Orleans and preached that old time religion: Don't kill the messenger. We're not here to be loved. We print the truth and some don't like it. But when 10,000 readers have quit in anger, that script needs work.

“Does managing editor Dean Baquet regret his decision to run the story?” wrote Gordon Russell of the Times-Picayune on Nov. 13. “Not one bit, he said Wednesday at a luncheon in his native New Orleans.” The big decision, of course, was to publish on the front page of the Los Angeles Times, just days before the recall election, the tale of Arnold Schwarzenegger as a serial groper of women. This outraged enough people in California to bring 10,000 cancelled subscriptions in its wake. Not a normal event:

Recounting the paper’s controversial decision, Baquet said the fallout was “swift and angry.” His first e-mail of the day, which arrived in the predawn hours of the day the story broke, read simply: “You bastard.” …By the time Baquet arrived at the office, he had hundreds of messages, most expressing similar sentiments. On TV, conservative commentators brayed that the Times was a tool of the left, and even nonpartisan critics questioned the paper’s judgment. The paper made the call to publish the story in spite of an “unwritten rule” in journalism that it’s unfair to print bombshells as campaigns wind down, Baquet said. But he viewed the alternative—not printing the truth—as worse

He viewed the alternative as worse. Whenever journalists take a view of the alternatives in a controversy like this, they hand you some of their press think, because that view reveals what the range of choices is thought by journalists to be. There are ideas under that range. Alternatives talk is press imagination speaking up. In New Orleans, Dean Baquet’s alternatives told a lot.

First example: “I’d prefer you respect us than love us.” This is part of the religion of the metropolitan press: they aren’t going to love you if you do your job well, an observation that newsroom experience tends to confirm— daily. Still, that experience is not the only experience that counts in the reckoning after. Okay, Baquet would have rather be respected than loved. Who can argue with that? But his alternatives—aim for respect, or crave to be loved—are stale and cramped, and they can be argued with.

When 10,000 people (who follow politics well enough to feel outraged by an editorial decision during election season) get angry and quit the newspaper, it might be wise to think anew, not about the love you don’t need from people, but the hate you now have from some. Yet Baquet said he had “no second thoughts about the decision to publish,” according to Russell. “To him, the episode sheds light on a newspaper’s role in the community: to be a cranky watchdog.”

Well, I doubt that “crankiness” explains 10,000 gone. And the alternatives Baquet poses—“we stand by our story” vs. “on second thought, we made a terrible mistake, so sorry!”—are not the only ones to contemplate. There’s “we stand by the story, and see the rage as the price you pay for being tough,” vs. “we stand by the story, but see the rage as a sign of things seriously wrong in our connection to a large part of California.” Which of these seems smarter to Baquet? The decision to go with the groping stories, (which I think is defensible) is followed by other key decisions that Baquet could have addressed but did not.

There’s deciding how to explain news of sexual allegations to those skeptical about your motives and upset that their election was taken over by this story. “I think the newspaper should kick you around sometimes,” Baquet said. “It should make you mad. It should upset the community.” Here we’re deep into newsroom religion, bravely defended. Most (but not all) journalists would admire this kind of stance. It connects to some powerful press mythology and local history in every town on the map with a decent newspaper.

But by the logic of this explanation—and it does have logic—the fact that an Angelino is very angry with the Times should, according to Baquet, be understood by said Angelino as evidence that the Times is actually doing its job. He said this in the context of 10,000—that’s ten thousand!—mad enough to quit. A good newspaper should make you mad.

Let’s agree there is a class of cases where this strange-to-the-ear reasoning holds. If the bureaucrats at the bumbling transit authority “hate” the reporter who covers the transit authority, (because he reports on their bumbling) this might indeed be proof of a job well done. But it does not follow from this specific class of cases that a wave of hatred for the Los Angeles Times is “proof” of reportorial success. People don’t trust it when their deeper emotions are explained away so easily, almost by a trick of logic.

Let’s agree also on the wisdom in Baquet’s “the newspaper should kick you around sometimes.” In fact there is some moral sense there, and it’s not confined to journalism. A good accountant should kick you around at times by way of raising hard questions. An honest attorney, the same. A doctor, at times. Even a football coach. If it never happens, you might worry.

But again it does not follow that a given kick received by citizens of Los Angeles is the kind of kick they deserve just for being citizens confronted with a tough newspaper in a tough town, edited by tough editors who make the tough calls and hang tough when accusations come down. “Our job is to ask tough questions of government,” Baquet said. “We should be tough, we should be believed, we should be vital. And that’s a whole lot better than being loved.” That the public’s love must be foregone by tough journalists is mostly an irrelevant sacrifice, however, since what mature person expects press and public to love each other in a huge, divided metropolis like L.A.?

Let’s agree that the cult of toughness pays many dividends to journalism. Being unafraid to ask hard, even grating questions is a clear virtue in those who have to raise issues and deliver bad news. It takes some imagination to see how toughness is also a vice. It is a vice because it seduces journalists into thinking that the only alternative to being extra tough is being extra soft, caving in, losing nerve, listening too much to critics— tanking. So if toughness—an attitude supreme in newsrooms—requires you to ignore critics, and its alternative, going soft, means you have caved into your critics, when in that scheme do you actually listen to your critics and puzzle through what they are saying? The cult has no answer to this question.

For even if you are proud of your call in the groping mess, comfortable with the reasoning and would do it again, (Baquet said all this) there is still the matter of what you learned from the bitter public reaction, what you take away for use in future crises of confidence. And there’s how to explain what you learned to the public you learned it from. On the evidence of the speech in his hometown, Baquet learned that the old time newsroom religion, powerful in its call and response, answered all his doubts. But is that the belief system of the 10,000 who quit? Does it answer any of their doubts?

Thinking there might be more to what Baquet said, or perhaps some missing context, I called Gordon Russell of the Times-Picayune in New Orleans, the reporter on the scene (and an NYU Journalism grad.) He gave me this:

About the 10,000 subscribers, he did say a few more things. He called the loss of so many readers an “astonishing shock”— clearly it bothered him, but he also made clear that the loss has not caused him to re-think his decision. He also did not seem to think more cancellations are on the way.

Instead, he said he took comfort in the public’s response to the Sept. 11 attacks, which was to turn to newspapers for information. And he said that as long as his paper does its job—part of which is to “kick you around sometimes—people will come back to it eventually.

He didn’t say anything specific about the people who canceled their subscriptions. But he did talk generally about how he thinks some media— particularly cable news—have been cowed by critics, leading them to avoid doing things like the Schwarzenegger articles…

He doesn’t put a lot of stock into the liberal-media theory, which came up in some of the questions (and obviously was a big part of the Schwarzenegger flap). Someone asked him about the political makeup of his newsroom, and he said he had no idea. “I suspect most reporters don’t think of themselves as political animals,” he said… He added that there’s no such thing as pure objectivity, but said essentially that good newspapers “struggle to be objective” every day.

Finally, I need to suggest a better way of viewing events that Dean Baquet and his boss, editor John Carroll, have unwisely simplified. (For PressThink’s earlier critique of Carroll’s public stance, click here and here.) “Please people, don’t slay the messenger,” put forward when you lose 10,000 readers, is, I believe, far too simple. It’s a reflex and it does nothing to make the messenger any smarter. But the economist and all-around clever thinker, Albert O. Hirschman, had some ideas that might help editors like Carroll expand the alternatives available to a proud, tough, intelligent and determined newspaper like the Los Angeles Times.

In a little book called Exit, Voice and Loyalty, (Harvard University Press, 1970), Hirschman said that when customers are dissatisfied with a firm, or constituents are angry with any organization, they have three basic options: exit, voice and loyalty. Exit is when you stop buying the product, cease your contribution to AARP, quit the PTA, or refuse to vote because you don’t like your choices. Voice is when you speak up: hey, you aren’t treating me right! I object, and here’s why. (This option presupposes someone to listen.)

The third and complicating choice is loyalty, which “holds exit at bay and activates voice.” A loyal reader of the Oregonian might well get angry at her newspaper. But loyalty means she will stick with the paper, despite that. It also means she will choose voice— speak up, write a letter, make a call to the public editor. “To resort to voice, rather than exit, is for the customer or member to make an attempt at changing the practices, policies and outputs of the firm from which one buys or the organization to which one belongs.”

Newspapers need the loyalty of readers, precisely because there are bound to be stresses and strains in the relationship. This is a truism. But how good are newspapers on voice? And when 10,000 people choose exit over a single incident, it may be time to question the reasoning that explains this mass flight as an inevitable consequence of doing a good job, a price the tough and determined must pay and accept. “They’ll be back,” Baquet’s speculation, shows again the poverty of alternatives in the standard script. He did say he was shocked then. But he sounds very calm now.

Margaret Sullivan, editor of the Buffalo News, comments on this post.

Posted by Jay Rosen at November 14, 2003 12:53 AM   Print


Look, Jay, the 10,000 quitting did so as an overt act of political intimidation, trying to hit the Times where it hurts over coverage that collided with their political preferences. If they could've gotten the major grocery store chains to pull their ads, they'd have done it for sure. I'll concede the Times' script is a bit timeworn, but I don't see anything different here than the local car dealers colluding to pull their ads because of the paper exposing shady sales tactics.

I don't see how you can address this the Times response to its critics without addressing the critics' own motives.

Posted by: tom mangan at November 14, 2003 10:28 AM | Permalink

Isn't it possible the paper also gained readers/subscribers who repect this stance?

Posted by: Anthony Bosio at November 14, 2003 11:42 AM | Permalink

Not so long ago, the L.A. Times was headed by an executive who announced that he wanted to break down the walls between the paper's marketing and news operations. It became an ethical disaster. Dean Baquet and his team have restored the paper's credibility, its most important asset. He didn't accomplish that by shrinking away from covering important news because it might hurt the business side of the paper.

Posted by: Paul Moses at November 14, 2003 12:15 PM | Permalink

I would caution against anyone's assuming he/she understands the complete range of Baquet's thinking simply on the basis of the one speech he gave. I think any thinking news executive -- and having watched Baquet's work for 15 years, I know he thinks -- understands that a newspaper's relationship with readers is far more complex and far less Manichean than Baquet's speech suggested. Put another way, I don't think even Baquet thought his words would be taken as absolutely literally as Prof. Rosen seems to be taking them here.

Posted by: Lex at November 14, 2003 2:06 PM | Permalink

The entire recall process--especially the election of Schwarzenegger--was a gigantic exercise in cognitive dissonance. I'm not at all surprised that 10,000 readers would react this way when the state's leading newspaper publishes a long article detailing how the object of their blind faith is a coarse bully.

For all the buzz about the LAt's piece, there was very little new information, only more solid confirmation to stories already in circulation. While there hasn't been much reporting on an organized campaign to enlist 10,000 subscribers to cancel, I'd be surprised if it was entirely spontaneous. This action was after the fact, but consider the successful pressure against CBS's Reagan biopic. Hardly anyone outside the production company had read the script, much less seen a nearly final edit.

The fact is that media companies are very vulnerable economically. As the right tightens its grip, these pressures are growing more intense.

Posted by: Mark Paul at November 14, 2003 2:58 PM | Permalink

Tom: I am not sure we know what motivated 10,000 people to stop getting the LA Times-- other than they were pissed enough to take quite an action. Has anyone tried to find out the different reasons why? The politicized campaign of intimidation you point to is certainly real, and worrisome. That happened, but how do we know how many had that motivation? It's easy to stereotype the 10,000 based on the most brash and visible LA Times-haters.

I know this: if I were Carroll, I would want some serious research done on the question. To take one possibility: how many thousand cancelled, not because they hate the Times and would do anything to destroy it, but because they had faith in the newspaper not to do this kind of thing? You may still think them wrong, but that's a very different motivation.

Paul: I think Baquet and Carroll are serious journalists, determined to protect and restore the Times reputation, and its independence. That is one reason their thinking on the recall events matters, because it is likely to affect whether they succeed in their aims. The lost 10,000 readers should concern them, not for business reasons (others can worry mainly about that) but for journalistic reasons. The LA Times certainly believes it does journalism that is ecumenical enough to be read by citizens of all political views. But this belief has to be tested by experience and interrogated now and then.

Lex: not sure what you mean by Rosen taking Baquet "absolutely literally." Could you say what you mean?

Posted by: Jay Rosen at November 14, 2003 3:09 PM | Permalink

Jay: why else would somebody sever their relationship with a newspaper over a single story? I mean, even if you hate the paper for that one sin, you cut yourself off from everything else it has to offer ... all the local news, consumer reporting, classified ads ... and you sever your relationship with the paper's advertisers. This goes straight to the heart of the paper's ability to survive as an economic entity. To do this over a single story is an overt act of protest designed to discourage the paper from doing this kind of reporting. Granted, each person will arrive at this this destination by slightly different routes, but the result is the same: kill the messenger. I hate to oversimplify but I don't think what's happening here is particularly complicated.

Posted by: tom mangan at November 14, 2003 3:36 PM | Permalink

in re: Why? Here is a comment posted at the weblog, LA Observed:

"The Times' management doesn't suffer as much as it might seem if circulation falls, as long as it doesn't go below the point at which national advertisers balk. High circulation is expensive. But the paper's real problem may be that the subscribers who canceled didn't just quit because of the groping headlines. The paper increasingly reads and feels as if it is put out by people who don't know Southern California, and don't especially care about it. If the LAT is just going to be a wannabe NYT -- making fun of those wacky Californians, obsessing on other media, blowing off local news or jamming all together in some "California" section -- what value does it add for the average suburbanite in Orange County, or the San Gabriel and San Fernando Valleys, or Ventura County? Subscribers are cancelling, not because they're not literate but because, aside from the movie listings they can get on Fandango, there's little that pertains to their public interest on a local, personal, meaningful level, so what do they have to lose?"

I don't know how true that is, but I think it shows why you would want to find out the reasons behind the 10,000 cancellations. I definitely disagree, Tom, that what's happening here is not particularly complicated. But then I would, since I just wrote 2,000 words on it!

Posted by: Jay Rosen at November 14, 2003 3:54 PM | Permalink

I think the underlying point here isn't about debating the motivations of the 10,000, but that the standard press think towards subscribers seems to be conflicted and illogical.

The Times seems to be marketing itself as the paper for consumers who want to read "tough" coverage of "tough" issues and who like to be "kicked around" from time to time. But is that a message to which a subscriber can, well... subscribe? Is that really why people subscribe to the Times?

Well, No, says Mr. Baquet, because a paper that behaves that way cannot be "loved."

So, who the heck are these unloving people who are still subscribing? Does the paper succeed in spite of itself? Do subscribers hang in there because they know they need a dose of Toughness and a good Kick now and then?

I just don't know about that. Are loyal NPR listeners loyal because its personalities are so darn polite and never espouse a viewpoint? Are Fox viewers loyal because their network is "fair and balanced"? There's other stuff in the mix, but for some reason, the press think wants to pretend there isn't.

Posted by: Eric at November 14, 2003 4:58 PM | Permalink

Jay, stop me if I'm putting words in your mouth, I don't intend the following that way, but let me outline what I've taken from your article:

"There is a difference between being *popular* and being *right*. If someone is *right*, they might not be *popular*. But they also might not be *popular* because they are *wrong*."

And so how does one distinguish between being unpopular because you are right, and being unpopular because you are wrong?

Journalists duck this issue - they have a stock defensive reply, which you examine. That is, the cliche that if both sides attack, you must be doing something right - this isn't true. It's entirely possible both sides are attacking because that overall job was shoddy and got everything wrong.

But ultimately, you circle back to the question in the first place, concluding that if the paper is unpopular, maybe it should consider that its own fault. But that's the charge they were denying in the first place, saying they are unpopular because they were right. So your conclusion begs the question.

As a bussiness, the newspaper has to try to be popular in some sense, since that's the definition of why people buy it - hence the problem of what to do when faced with a story which is deemed right but very unpopular. Of course, the oppostion will say the story is wrong. Again, we're back where we started.

Posted by: Seth Finkelstein at November 14, 2003 5:38 PM | Permalink

Jay: if you're looking for complexity you can find it anywhere print newspapers try to reconcile their urban traditions with suburban realities. Most of our local coverage is built around what happens in cities but most people live in suburbs where those urban concerns don't apply. The 10,000 who quit over the Arnie story were, most likely, encouraged to by talk radio, which has been trying to become their sole source of news lo these many years. They'll probably come back, because if they're engaged enough to quit the paper in protest, they'll probably get back on board sometime later to catch up on what's going on locally.

The real problem these days is that nobody wants to cover the suburbs because no news happens there. And that, as alluded to by LA Observed, is what we need to be worrying about. The Times can afford to lose 10,000 who quit in a fit of pique; they can't afford to lose the 100,000 who never find any news about their community in their hometown paper.

Posted by: tom mangan at November 15, 2003 3:56 AM | Permalink

Jay, you write: "The LA Times certainly believes it does journalism that is ecumenical enough to be read by citizens of all political views. But this belief has to be tested by experience and interrogated now and then."

I'd add: interrogated, and then dumped. There's no such thing as ecumenical journalism, just as there's no such thing as ecumenical religion. Maybe the Times is "out of touch" with the demographic represented by those 10,000 cancellations; so what? Being all things to all people may be a smart doctrine for an evangelical faith, but it's bad news for journalism.

Posted by: Jeff Sharlet at November 15, 2003 2:42 PM | Permalink

Seth: I think you have doped out the problem very well, putting it in a more pithy way than I did: "how does one distinguish between being unpopular because you are right, and being unpopular because you are wrong?" Press think has no good way to grapple with this, and that's the problem in saying that a storm of protest is evidence of a job well done.

Tom: "The real problem these days is that nobody wants to cover the suburbs because no news happens there." Agreed, big problem-- bigger than the rage over groping and the 10,000 who quit.

Jeff: Being all things to all people may, in fact, be impossible now, as you suggest. It may prove even more difficult in years ahead. And mainstream journalists may even know much of this, and edit accordingly. But that doesn't mean the *idea* will be junked. If you aren't all things to all people, then it's likely you've become some things to some people. And this in turn means you'd need a new theory of public service to replace "all the news that's fit to print," and "we cover Los Angeles metro." They very word "cover" carries the suggestion of completeness; and how deeply woven in the journalist's mind is the idea of "covering" things?

I remember one day I was watching Dan Rather and he chose to end his broadcast with this: "And that's part of our world tonight." Part of? I said to myself. Now you tell us! Epistemologically speaking, Rather had no idea what he was saying, even though what he was saying was true. For the very next question, "which part?" would have confounded him. If a news report is only part of our world, that means it is part-ial; but press think stops working at that point.

Posted by: Jay Rosen at November 15, 2003 6:19 PM | Permalink

LAT should fear the loss of those 10,000 subs, because they may find they can get the news they want from the Internet edition, or from another media source.

When I got into the business, and there were periodic subscriber fits, journos always said "don't worry, they'll come back. Where else can they go?" and in 1986, that was true. But today, "Where else can they go?" Everywhere.

Posted by: bryan at November 15, 2003 11:00 PM | Permalink

Jay: Re "absolutely literally," I was referring to the first point of Baquet's that you seized on, "First example: 'I'd prefer you respect us than love us.'"

You suggest that his ONLY alternatives are "aim for respect, or crave to be loved," but I doubt Baquet thinks those two choices are the sum and substance of the spectrum of relationships between newspaper and readers. I believe this just a metaphoric way of telling readers: We're going to tell you the truth even if it makes you unhappy with us, and we're not going to lose any sleep over it. I do NOT think it shows that Baquet's thinking with respect to the relationship between paper and readers is limited to that dichotomy.

Posted by: Lex at November 17, 2003 9:53 AM | Permalink

Anecdotally, I cancelled my subscription to the LA Times, but I had only planned to continue it up to the election. I can't afford 2 papers, no the NY Times won out.

I saw quite a number of signs in L.A. exhorting people to cancel their subscriptions. This was obviously an attempt at political intimidation from the Schwartzenegger campaign.

And yes, I, personally know 1 person who started up their subscription again in response to the LAT coverage and cancellation stories.

So, notwithstanding the repetition of 10,000 in this blog-coverage story, I think the bottom line effect remains to be determined.

Posted by: George Girton at November 17, 2003 2:29 PM | Permalink

From the Intro