Who will the journalistic competition poach while the Tribune Co. fiddles?

Media criticism.
Jan. 5 2007 6:40 PM

The L.A. Times Raiders

Who will the journalistic competition poach while the Tribune Co. fiddles?

Los Angeles Times. Click image to expand.

Having neither shat nor gotten off the pot in Los Angeles, the Tribune Co. should now be prepared for the most talented journalists at its Los Angeles Times to choose other career options if the company fails to 1) demonstrate a higher commitment to the editorial budget or 2) sell the paper to one of the many local billionaires who will.

Two of the biggest stars to depart the paper in 2006 were Baghdad veteran Alissa J. Rubin, who has joined the New York Times, and correspondent John Daniszewski, who is now the Associated Press' foreign editor. Journalists jump from paper to paper all the time, so who knows why they left. But it's undeniable that the Tribune Co.'s endless demands for staff cuts—which ultimately forced Editor John Carroll and his successor, Dean Baquet, to exit—have created a dangerous atmosphere of uncertainty in the newsroom.

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I previously endorsed the Tribune Co.'s efforts to right-size the paper's bloated staff, but the issue was supposed to be settled by the end of 2006. And yet it goes on. As the paper floats into its limbo zone, nobody knows if the Tribune Co. will remain its owner. When journalists in such a prestigious newsroom have no idea of what their paper will look like in six months, they become vulnerable to poaching.

Who are the paper's most poachable people? Scroll this staff box and tell me it isn't packed with them.

Pulitzer Prizes are one marker of talent, and many have gone to current Los Angeles Times journalists: Dan Neil for his automobile column; Carolyn Cole and Don Bartletti for feature photography; Kevin Sack (shared) for his defense reporting; David Willman for his FDA investigations; and, barely out of knee-socks, Charles Ornstein helped the paper's King/Drew series win a public-service Pulitzer.

Reporter T. Christian Miller can do it all—wars (large or small), presidential campaigns, and investigations. Political reporter Ronald Brownstein could write his own ticket at any magazine, newspaper, or network. Legal-affairs reporter Henry Weinstein is widely respected for his work, but he also deserves marks for talking back to management during the Staples scandal and speaking critically about the Tribune Co. during the recent crisis.

Any newspaper that's serious about Washington coverage covets Tom Hamburger, Peter Wallsten, and Bob Drogin. Peter G. Gosselin routinely excavates unique economic news and Editorial Page Editor Andrés Martinez inspires worship wherever he goes. Roving reporter Stephanie Simon writes great stuff from the heartland and Kim Murphy excels wherever she goes. The paper's architecture critic, Christopher Hawthorne, who once freelanced for Slate,is among the nation's best.

Veteran Times watcher Marc Cooper tells me great things about "Points West" columnist Steve Lopez, reporters Scott Glover and Matt Lait, Mexico City bureau chief Hector Tobar, and others. Slate's Bryan Curtis, a stingy man when it comes to praise, calls sports columnist T.J. Simers wildly entertaining.

The poaching may have already begun. Recently, two Los Angeles Times reporters mentioned above nearly left the paper: After a see-sawing drama, T. Christian Miller finally rejected the aggressive romancing of the New York Times, and Peter Wallsten almost moved to the Washington Post.

The Tribune Co. obviously hoped to hit its headcount goals—and its financial targets—by ejecting its mediocre journalists while retaining its best. But will its strategy backfire? Instead, will the best depart voluntarily? A half-dozen defections by key people of the Miller and Wallsten caliber could kindle a staff panic that sweet-talk and pay raises would be helpless to stop. If enough go, they could conceivably take with them some of the very asset value the Tribune Co. is desperately trying to pump up.

Addendum, Jan. 6: Kevin Roderick of LA Observed (and others) points out that I missed Ellen Barry's departure to the New York Times. Roderick also notes that Tim Brown has gone to Yahoo, Rick Wartzman has hooked up with the New America Foundation, and John Balzar has taken a position with the Humane Society. Josh Peter notes Alan Abrahamson has moved to nbcsports.com.

As for additional poachable talent, Tyler Green nominates art critic Christopher Knight; Hank Greely nominates science reporter Robert Lee Hotz, Brent Hunsberger nominates reporter Kim Christensen. On the sports beat, Mike Burke wants J.A. Adande added and Keith Wolf wants the same for Marc Heisler.

And why, reader Barry Geisler asks, did I neglect to include James Rainey in the star list? He's filed excellent pieces about the conflict between the paper's staff and its owners.

******

What Los Angeles Times stars did I leave off my list? Send your nominations to slate.pressbox@gmail.com. Vernon Loeb? Peter King? Julian E. Barnes? Kenneth Turan? (E-mail may be quoted by name unless the writer stipulates otherwise. Permanent disclosure: Slate is owned by the Washington Post Co.)

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Jack Shafer was Slate's editor at large. You can follow him on Twitter or email him at Shafer.Reuters@gmail.com.

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