As of midnight Friday, a number of veteran journalists from the L.A. Times will be out of work. Earlier this week the paper laid off about a dozen staffers. Tim Rutten is one of those reporters clearing his desk. He spent over 30 years at the Times, where he was a part of three reporting teams that won Pulitzer Prizes. He served as the opinions editor, assistant national editor and most recently as a columnist writing about the media. Madeleine Brand spoke with him about his thoughts on the layoffs and life after the L.A. Times.
While no complete official explanation was provided about the cuts, Rutten says the unofficial reason is all about the bottom line.
“Whatever the merits of your work, to be older and to be collecting a relatively large paycheck was to have a kind of target on your back,” he says, admitting that he was surprised, but not shocked by the news, given the nature of changes made to the paper in the past decade.
“After the paper was acquired by Tribune in 2000, there’s been an unbroken record of disaster. It’s now a shell of what it was 10 years ago. Readers get less and less for more money,” he says.
While the downsizing has certainly been detrimental to the careers of veteran journalists, Rutten says it’s been most damaging to the nature of civic discourse in Southern California.
“As somebody who has spent their life there, it’s been a disaster for this community. The Times in many ways was the public square for Los Angeles,” he says. “Southern California is so diverse and fragmented, and the Times was one of the places that contributed to its common identity.”
He says that identity relies on the paper’s ability to hold public institutions accountable to the public. But with the L.A. Times’ staff less than half of what it was 10 years ago, serving as the city’s civic watchdog has become nearly impossible to do.
“Incremental bits of information [provided by specific beats] add up to an understanding of the life of the city, the county and the people who inhabit it. Without that, the people’s quality of civic conversation and civic democracy is diminished,” he says.
Rutten ends his four decades with the Times tonight at midnight. He says he’s staying cautiously optimistic.
“I’ve still got a few good pieces left in me. It’s a bit of a shock, but the thing to do is carry on and make the contribution you make. And that’s certainly what I intend to do.”