JOURNALISM

Narrative Journalism in the Los Angeles Times

Written for “Advanced Narrative Journalism” independent study course with professor Bob Sipchen at Occidental College, spring 2010.

“Column One” as a Unique and Esteemed Feature of this Big City Daily Paper

The “Number One” represents the essential, the singular and the sensational. It is the cream of the crop and the top of the list. “Column One” is the designation reserved by the Los Angeles Times for those exemplary, in-depth, narrative articles, so important as to earn a front page, “above the fold” position.  Yet, these articles are not breaking news. Instead, they have been selected for superior writing, unexpected subject matter and original storytelling.  In the 2003 anthology How Far Can a Piano Fly? And Other Tales from Column One in the Los Angeles Times, columnist Patt Morrison further explored the distinction between Column One and everything else.  She wrote that, “Whatever mayhem the day’s news brings, Column One is an oasis, a leisurely, considered account, nothing like the hurried, Gatling gun rat-a-tat of news stories.”[1] Rather than “news you can use,” she described Column One stories as “quests – into minds, into places, into past and future – original subjects, storyteller prose with substance at its heart, engaged in writing with perhaps, a perhaps a slightly canted take on a familiar topic.”[2]

Column One first appeared in the ‘60s, a time of social protest and experimentation.  As Morrison wrote, “the Beatles were still together, but the nation was coming apart – Vietnam, black power and flower power, women’s lib and the Pill, and drugs and sex and rock ‘n’ roll.”[3] The decade also saw the rise in the popularity of narrative journalism.  Tom Wolfe was at his height with works like The Electric Kool Aid Acid Test. Hunter S. Thompson was reporting on the Hells Angels in his “gonzo” style.  Truman Capote published the groundbreaking In Cold Blood. People believed in expanding the notion of what belonged in a newspaper to include interesting stories about social phenomena.

When the column took off in 1968, The Times recognized that it could become the paper’s distinguishing feature. Times business columnist Michael Hiltzik remembers that the Los Angeles Times would take out back page ads in the New York Times and re-print the Column One stories under the heading “Los Angeles Times: A Different Kind of Journalism,” making the point that Los Angeles could offer more exciting and deeper coverage than New York.  Hiltzik envisioned Column One as “the quintessential LA Times story.”[4] In fact, for a long time Column One was simply called “the non-dupe,” short for non-duplicative – meaning that the story wouldn’t be found in any other newspaper.

The challenges of 2010, marked by economic slowdown, are different from those of 1968.  Newspapers face decreasing revenues from an out of date business model and struggle to maintain circulation.  Many have folded or moved to online publication only.  Preparing for the “death of print,” many journalists have sought new career paths.  The Times has not been immune to such turmoil.  Recent years have brought massive reporter and editorial layoffs along with cuts of entire sections. The size of the newspaper has literally decreased by inches. Yet Column One has remained.

Column One stories are as essential to the Times as its investigative and “watchdog” reporting.  They offer unique views of the city, fresh and in-depth takes on breaking news, accounts of distant cultures and commentary on social issues. They are as important to readers’ comprehension of the world as the day’s major events.  In a 2008 post on the Readers’ Representative Blog, several editors offered reasons why front page narrative stories are essential to the newspaper.[5] Marc Duvoisin described the newspaper as a “buffet, a smorgasbord, a browsing experience,” and noted that many readers crave “deep engagement with original journalism.”   According to John Arthur, “We present these stories as significant parts of the front page because they are beautifully written and tend to involve readers.”  Craig Turner said that “Well-written character studies of unusual people have been part of the fabric of the L.A. Times for 40 years.”

Character studies represent only one kind of Column One narrative stories.  Another example is in-depth coverage of significant world events.  Following Haiti’s recent earthquake, Column One covered specific stories, issues and people, making the overwhelming crisis more personal and real.  Another recent example was Column One’s coverage of international drug issues affecting Mexico’s border cities and extending to Los Angeles.  Sometimes Column One articles offer a “slice of life” view into a foreign culture. Other stories detail life in the small towns of America, covering issues that don’t merit breaking news attention but are still relevant to Angelenos.  Column One may also cover political issues by profiling prominent legislators and politicians.  Of course, Column One articles also come close to home.  Some write of the plights of people in parts of the city others have never ventured into.  Or they offer new perspectives on the events many experienced firsthand.

The Column One articles published in the early days of May 1992 exemplify the importance of narrative writing in The Times.  On April 29, triggered by the verdict of the Rodney King case, riots blazed through a shocked Los Angeles.  Issues of race, class and justice had created tensions for so long that the city exploded in rage.  Of course, The Times immediately published news stories about the riots.  But news stories wouldn’t have been enough.  The people of L.A. needed emotional relief.  They craved some kind of explanation that would help to understand how such a thing could have happened.  And just when people needed guidance the most, the local government and police seemed unable to deliver.  But the Los Angeles Times did.  Under the Column One banner the newspaper printed four articles of personal accounts and reflections on the riots by Times reporters.  Each conveyed a distinctive and completely different voice and point of view.  Each article was sincere, poignant and moving.  And each did succeed at analyzing and explaining, if only a little bit, how such a thing as riots in L.A. could have happened.  They also implicitly addressed the city’s racial divides in that each writer was from a different background – one white, one Chinese-American, one black and one Latino.  The articles didn’t suggest concrete answers or solutions.  But in a time of such momentous turmoil, the Times offered solace to Angelenos.

Of course, readers aren’t the only ones who enjoy and benefit from the Column One series.  Times journalists do too, especially when it is their byline that graces the title.  According to Morrison, reporters relish “an opportunity to unshackle their talents from confining notions of what a newspaper story is and isn’t.”[6] Nor are they content to rest like patience on a monument for the day their Column One appears in print.  Morrison explains that “The competition to make Column One is the newspaper world’s version of the struggles of millions of sperm to become the one to reach the egg first.”  A scene from Michael Connelly’s recent novel The Scarecrow affirms that idea.  LA Times reporter Jack McEvoy is working his last days at The Times, the victim of a swath of layoffs.  When he comes across a gripping story, his editor Pendergast suggests that it be published under Column One.  For Jack, it would represent the culmination of the ultimate Times goal.  He narrates,

Column One on the front page was reserved each day for the signature story of the paper.  The best-written piece, the one with the most impact, the long-term project – if the story was good enough, it went out front, above the fold and in column one.  I wondered if Pendergast knew he was taunting me.  In seven years at The Times I had never had a Column One story.  In more than two thousand days on the beat, I had never come up with the best piece of the day.  He      was waving the possibility of going out the door with a Column One at me like a big fat carrot.[7]

Jack’s attitude about leaving The Times suddenly changes.  Instead of being content to slink out with a bitty article for the homicide beat, he becomes determined to unlock the mystery behind a brutal murder, at whatever the cost.  The competitive atmosphere is very real, an idea that Morrison explains further with “the math:”

The Times employs hundreds of reporters.  They write hundreds of stories every day, for hundreds of days per annum.  The front page carries at least a half-dozen stories ever day.  But there’s only one Column One per diem, and while The Times is a polite and collegial place, it was known to happen on a very rare occasion that an editor may have oh-so-subtly critiqued another editor’s Column One offering, to the benefit of his or her own.  One editor used to keep a running tally of how many Column Ones his reporters had scored – a measure, he believed, of how good he and they were.[8]

Although the Times no longer employs hundreds of reporters and publishes fewer stories per day, there is still only one Column One, and it still represents the best writing of the paper.

But no matter how good the writing, Column One does have critics. Some disagree with the Column’s front page placement, saying that this placement pushes out other potentially more important stories from front page space. The blog “LAist” cited an example in 2006 in an article titled, “LA Times: Not Valuing the Embeds?”  They say that an article about a suicide bombing in Ramadi, where the only reporter on the scene was from The Times, should have made the front page above the fold.  Instead, it was covered on A4, but the Column One article – about tennis – got front page, above the fold placement.  LAist wrote,

As almost a clear example of why the LA Times’ Column One feature doesn’t work, Friday’s Times not only dropped the Iraq story nearly below the fold…it put it below a Dave McKibben trend piece on tennis. Roug’s piece [on the suicide bombin in Ramadi], which provides color that no other paper got, is demoted to A4. Could be it’s no longer even a sidebar, but is now just buried. It would be funny, if it weren’t so pathetic….Why — why oh why — does this nobody-loves-tennis piece have to be top-left in the paper?[9]

Readers had similar reactions to a 2008 Column One article “Through the Prison Glass.”  The article told the story of a lasting relationship of a prisoner with a woman on the outside. The Readers’ Representative summarized reader concerns with the questions, “Is The Times a place for storytelling? Was this a story worth telling, and did it belong on Page A1?”[10] About 100 people e-mailed or phoned in with complaints and criticism.  Several said that the story belonged in a tabloid due to its sensationalistic, soap opera style.  Others questioned The Times’ judgment and sense of priorities in putting such a story on the front page in the midst of articles about world crises.  One person wrote, “Use what’s left of the L.A. Times to give us the news we need to know.”  Yet, the same article caused 200 people to contact the Readers’ Representative with praise.  One wrote that the story “cracked open a new portal into life for me.”  Another said, “you have really shown that fact is more riveting than fiction.”  Others appreciated the humanizing perspective, and hoped for more human interest pieces.

The extreme reactions are a reminder that newspapers always need to be careful when planning narrative journalism articles, taking into account the question, “Is this a story worth telling?”  In this case, it is a question that the author Joe Mozingo had considered.  He told the Readers’ Representative that, “I thought it was fascinating tale that would prompt readers to think about the nature of love and human bonds, while raising some significant legal issues and introducing them to a world many probably never imagined.”[11]

The aspect of the “never imagined” is why Column One is important to The Times.  Thanks to the entertainment industry, Angelenos are surrounded by the world of virtual reality.  But often the truth is more interesting, relevant and meaningful, helping readers to make sense of their city and their world.  As we prepare to face the challenges of a new decade, such stories will continue to be essential.  And if the past 40 years are any indication, we can still count on the Los Angeles Times to provide them.

Works Cited

Arnold, Roxane and Marc Duvoisin. How Far Can a Piano Fly? And Other Tales from the Los Angeles Times. Los Angeles: Los Angeles Times Books, 2003.

Connelly, Michael. The Scarecrow.  New York: Little, Brown and Company, 2009.

Gold, Jamie. “Extreme reactions to ‘Prison Glass.’ 16 Dec 2008. Readers’ Representative Blog. 1 Feb 2010. <http://latimesblogs.latimes.com/readers/2008/12/some-ask-why-te.html>.

Hiltzik, Michael. Interview with Michael Hiltzik. Daina Solomon. 15 Feb 2010.

Lindsey, Ethan. “LA Times: Not Valuing the Embeds? 7 Jan 2006. Laist. 1 Feb 2010.                 <http://laist.com/2006/01/07/la_times_not_valuing_the_embeds.php>.


[1] Page 1. Arnold, Roxane and Marc Duvoisin. How Far Can a Piano Fly? And Other Tales from the Los Angeles Times. Los Angeles: Los Angeles Times Books, 2003.

[2] Page 2, ibid.

[3] Page 2, ibid.

[4] Hiltzik, Michael. Interview with Michael Hiltzik Daina Solomon. 15 Feb 2010.

[5] Editors quoted in Gold, Jamie. “Extreme reactions to ‘Prison Glass.’ 16 Dec 2008. Readers’ Representative Blog. 1 Feb 2010. <http://latimesblogs.latimes.com/readers/2008/12/some-ask-why-te.html>.

[6] Page 1, Arnold, Roxane and Marc Duvoisin. How Far Can a Piano Fly? And Other Tales from the Los Angeles Times. Los Angeles: Los Angeles Times Books, 2003.

[7] Page 1398 (Kindle Edition), Connelly, Michael. The Scarecrow.  New York: Little, Brown and Company, 2009.

[8] Page 2, Arnold, Roxane and Marc Duvoisin. How Far Can a Piano Fly? And Other Tales from the Los Angeles Times. Los Angeles: Los Angeles Times Books, 2003.

[9] Lindsey, Ethan. “LA Times: Not Valuing the Embeds? 7 Jan 2006. Laist. 1 Feb 2010. <http://laist.com/2006/01/07/la_times_not_valuing_the_embeds.php>.

[10] Gold, Jamie. “Extreme reactions to ‘Prison Glass.’ 16 Dec 2008. Readers’ Representative Blog. 1 Feb 2010. <http://latimesblogs.latimes.com/readers/2008/12/some-ask-why-te.html>.

[11] Quoted in Gold, Jamie. “Extreme reactions to ‘Prison Glass.’ 16 Dec 2008. Readers’ Representative Blog. 1 Feb 2010. <http://latimesblogs.latimes.com/readers/2008/12/some-ask-why-te.html>.

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