Readers' Representative Journal

A conversation on newsroom ethics and standards

Category: Q&A

Extreme reactions to 'Prison Glass'

Pamela_griffin "Masterful piece of research and writing, " wrote Leah Sullivan of Pasadena.

"What in the world are you people doing?" asked Jim Schupp of Los Feliz.

Readers reacted in the extreme to the "Through Prison Glass" series, a highly detailed examination of a hardened criminal, his crimes and his decades-long relationship with an intelligent, accomplished woman. Readers who followed the three-part series wondered what would happen to the couple and why she stayed in love with him. Readers who didn't follow the story had their own questions: Is The Times a place for storytelling? Was this a story worth telling, and did it belong on Page A1?

In all, more than 200 readers praised the storytelling; some 100 others complained about The Times' publishing what many called a "human-interest" story on the front page (on Nov. 30, Dec. 2 and Dec. 4). Both sets of readers had one thing in common: Many called themselves longtime readers and subscribers.

Three editors -- two who oversee choices for the front page, and one who edited the series -- responded to the readers' concerns.

"Well-written character studies of unusual people have been part of the fabric of the L.A. Times for 40 years. We realize that not all of them will appeal to all readers, but this one did strike a chord with many," said Craig Turner, weekend editor. And from Executive Editor John Arthur: “We present these stories as significant parts of the front page because they are beautifully written and tend to involve readers."

More from readers, editors and the reporter follows.

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Proposition 8: We get e-mails...

Readers have homed in on three facets of coverage when it comes to Proposition 8:

  • Before the election there was an ad that popped out, literally, at latimes.com readers as they perused the editorial board's stands online.
  • Just after the election there were complaints that the newsroom called the vote too soon, and wasn't giving adequate coverage to those who were protesting the results of the vote.
  • In the days since have come complaints that the coverage is trying to make Yes on 8 voters look bad.
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"Luann" comic strip starts five-week run

Luann_and_puddles As a post on this journal noted in early October, one spot on the comics pages is serving as a place to test-drive comic strips that might replace "For Better or for Worse," whose author semi-retired in August.  Here's a note that appears in the Calendar section today:

To Our Readers
“Luann” joins Calendar today, one of the comics we’re letting readers sample as a possible replacement for “For Better or for Worse,” which is now in reruns. Through Dec. 14, we will run “Luann,” by Greg Evans. After that we’ll sample one or two more comics, then we’ll make a selection. Please send comments to
comics (at) latimes.com.

Here's the post from August when the "For Better or for Worse" announcement was first made.

Luann (and Puddles) courtesy United Features Syndicate.

Who says print is dead?*

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All Thursday, people have filled the lobby of The Times' headquarters downtown and stood in lines going down both 2nd Street and Spring Street. They wanted a piece of history in the form of the Times' front page announcing Tuesday's election results.

As today's news story reported, newspapers nationwide have met the extraordinary demand for Nov. 5 editions by printing hundreds of thousands of extra copies. As Times Editor Russ Stanton said in the piece, people "want to savor this moment in our nation's history." The savoring included throngs waiting in the lobby and honking in their cars outside as people bought copies of the election day edition. They also purchased glossy copies of the front page and replicas of the plate that was on the presses the evening of Nov. 4.

Jack Klunder, president of the Los Angeles Times Newspaper, was in the lobby himself much of the day, talking to those who were buying papers -- by the dozen in many cases. Klunder says The Times has sold an extra 232,000 copies, and will be printing more as needed. Plans now are to keep the lobby open for sales from 7 a.m. to 7 p.m. through Saturday.* Updated information: The hours on Saturday have been changed, and the lobby now will be open for sales 8 a.m. to 4 p.m. 

Photo: Rod Warren, 32, of Burbank, crosses 2nd Street after buying a stack of reprints of Wednesday's post-election Los Angeles Times edition for 50 cents each. People bought newspapers in huge numbers Wednesday, a day after the historic election of the nation's first black president. Credit: Ricardo DeAratanha / Los Angeles Times

Notes on the redesign

More than 300 readers have commented on the design changes introduced Tuesday in the print version of The Times. A note from Editor Russ Stanton in that day's paper invited readers to call or write.

As editors in the Letters to the Editor department can attest, and as anecdotal evidence from this office shows, people are more likely to take to the phones or computer when they're peeved. So it's notable that some 20% of those who commented praised the moves overseen by Michael Whitley, assistant managing  editor for design (with notes like this from reader Ron Ching in Manhattan Beach: "We love the L.A. Times' new format! Very formal in a cool way.")

As for the other 80%, here are the top complaints. The editors' responses are below.

Readers...

  • asked for the return of the Page A2 index
  • want the weather returned to the front page
  • asked about the change in datelines and bylines
  • wanted Morning Briefing back in Sports

Two overall themes also came up repeatedly: readers fretting that the focus was on design more than the content, and saying that The Times has shrunk too much of late.

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Playing the stock market story

Happy_nyse_tradersReader Ken Reza of Burbank thought that the news of the Dow Jones industrial average scoring its biggest one-day point gain ever should have been on the front page Tuesday.

"I just wanted to offer some advice on how your paper could help build investor confidence that we so desperately need and would hence help rebuild our economy," wrote Reza in an e-mail sent Tuesday. "Yesterday we just saw a record 900+ point surge in the market that had never been seen before on Wall Street. This should have been on the front page of today's paper and here is why: It would ... help ordinary Americans feel more confident that [our] system is not broken, it would allow foreign investors to regain confidence that America is still the number one country to do business in and last of all it would help to just see a positive reflection of our economy. I would like to see more positive spins from L.A. Times when they appear so that way it can help restore the confidence in Americans in not pulling all of [their] money out of the stock market."

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Reporter, readers and the man in the story meet online

Marine_mitch_hood_edited1Reporter Jia-Rui Chong's Column One story on Mitch Hood, a former Marine whose two tours in Iraq left him facing, as Chong wrote, "a new enemy: sleep," included at the end this invitation: "Join us for a live Web chat at noon today as two Veterans Affairs experts discuss the influence of war on sleep and the ways that physicians try to treat the resulting problems. Go to www.latimes.com/sleepchat."

It was a new dimension for Chong and offered a chance for readers to meet Hood, the subject of her profile, online. The veteran showed up as well as the two experts, Dr. Thomas C. Neylan of the San Francisco Veterans Affairs Medical Center, and Steve Woodward of the Sleep Research Laboratory at the VA's National Center for Post Traumatic Stress Disorder in Palo Alto.

Chong's carefully crafted published story, published Aug. 5, seems a contrast to the sprawling conversation online that involved as many as five people e-talking about different things at once, over the course of about an hour.

Lindsay Barnett, the online editor who moderates the chats for latimes.com, notes some limitations to holding chats. There’s that overlap in conversation when one person is typing an answer while another person has posted an entirely different question, for instance. But a live blog offers “a unique way for the reader to be able to interact directly in a way that you can't so much reading the story or e-mailing the writer of a story or commenting on a message board. There’s something about the immediacy, knowing they're there reading it at the same time you’re writing it."

As its own form of storytelling, it is time- and resource-intensive, involving at least one reporter, editors, sources and technical help all available at the same time. The number of people involved in producing the chat has to be measured against the number of readers who benefit (Barnett says that a chat might typically have about 20 to 50 participants; a celebrity- or sports-driven one might have 100; this one had about 60). But Barnett judges the success of a chat not just by the number of participants but by quality of the questions, and “if people are getting something from it." Many of the four or five chats a month The Times offers are for sports- and entertainment-related stories. Barnett says, “Sometimes the comments we just get are ‘omg, I love you,’ that sort of thing. For this one, there were thoughtful comments and opinions; people had interesting ideas to offer.”

The online doors were thrown open a bit before noon on Tuesday for a conversation that lasted more than an hour. How do Chong and the editor on the story, Steve Padilla, think it went? Their answers follow.

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Of marches and walkathons

Revlon_runwalk_for_women Sandy Banks' Tuesday column was about an event that drew thousands on Sunday -- and that wasn't covered otherwise in the L.A. Times.

"I was astonished to find no article in The Times regarding the EIF Run/Walk for Women held at the Coliseum," wrote Gerry Suzuki of Torrance on Sunday. "Did I somehow overlook it?  When 50,000 or more people  show up to support such a worthwhile fundraiser, it deserves attention. Most of the participants wore signs on their backs honoring several friends or relatives. You found space to report a rally of 400 parents supporting students of Crenshaw High and to report a march of about 400 in Hollywood supporting China's Olympics. Also an article about Ojai's Pastie Lady.  Are those items so important that there was no space left for an event involving more than 50,000? What kind of newspaper can ignore a topic  affecting so many local people?" Donna Trimingham of Redondo Beach wrote too: "How about next year you come walk with me and the 60,000 others or at least give us a paragraph or two in your paper."

It's not uncommon to get such complaints every month or two, given the fact that a region this size gives rise regularly to well-attended events, be they protest marches or fundraising rallies for a good cause.

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Scoring high school sports

Gerrit_cole The Times has found something of an answer to a struggle it has had for years: Getting reports from as many fields, courts, tracks and pools as possible from nearly 700 high schools in The Times' five-county region, and then giving readers more of what they want when they ask for local coverage.

Nowadays the Sports desk puts more reports on games than ever online, at Varsity Times Insider; and as ever, editors count on coaches and schools to send in the scores and stats on games and matches.

Denny Lennon is both reader and coach, an overlap not uncommon in those wanting more from The Times. He wrote in response to a column by Eric Sondheimer on April 9 about the Corona del Mar volleyball team, "Given my position as director of beach volleyball for USA Volleyball, I was pleased to see coverage of boys in the Sports section today. However, as a reader of the L.A. Times for over 40 years, I  prefer to read about teams that are at least in L.A. County. Let web-based or Orange County newspapers cover their activities, we have boys powers like Loyola or Mira Costa that deserve time in the Los Angeles Times."

In other words, every reader thinks of "local" as his or her area, which might mean anywhere in Ventura, Los Angeles, Orange, Riverside or San Bernardino counties. That's what makes Varsity Times key to coverage. Off the main page, readers will find regional coverage, where Times reporters blog about high school sports around the Southland. There are six blogs: the City Section (schools in the L.A. Unified School District) and the Southern Section, which includes schools in the San Fernando Valley/North, the Inland Empire, San Gabriel Valley, Orange County and L.A. County (those not in the City Section). There's even a blog called Recruiting Buzz, conversations about where local athletes are going to college.

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Hot off the presses

What's in The Times gets its fair number of comments and criticisms, but so does the paper itself. The physical thing that readers (of the print version) hold, that is. And readers ask the darnedest questions. The question from Tom Tetzlaff of Lake Forest ended up being sent on behalf of his rabbit: "I'd heard that The Times was printed using soy ink ... even the color photos? Obviously the inserts you don't have complete control over. Need to know."

The short answer: Yes. The longer answer is found on a link off latimes.com:

http://www.latimes.com/services/newspaper/mediacenter/la-mediacenter-environment,0,3740699.story

Tetzlaff's note of thanks for the link included a postscript. "Not to give you the impression that we don't READ The Times (we do),  we just wanted to know if our rabbit could make bedding out of it after we're done with a copy. Another way of recycling."

Husbandry aside, there are other questions from readers who prefer to get their news on paper. Some complain when they end up with dirty hands. Lay off the hand lotion till you're done reading, advises Greg Malcolm, director of operations. Even the water-soluble soy-based ink, which is highly resistant to rub-off, does sometimes leave avid readers with gray hands.

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Maintaining dance coverage

La_ballet A number of readers and others who are involved in the arts have sent notes asking what The Times' plans are for dance coverage. Questions have come in since readers learned that longtime dance writer Lewis Segal was among those who took the buyout (his last day was Friday).

Cyrus Parker-Jeannette, the chairwoman of the Department of Dance at CSU Long Beach, put it this way in an e-mail: "I am delighted to see the vast coverage of the arts, and write to implore you to maintain this coverage so that the Southern California communities will remain aware and informed of the trends and events in our area.  Though the reality of online access to news may be accelerating beyond the subscriptions to the printed page, there are masses in our society who still do not have computers at home and who rely on the newspaper as a source of information. Please do not diminish the coverage of the arts and dance in the Los Angeles Times."

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"Doonesbury" clamor

Almost 100 readers have called or written to complain that "Doonesbury" seems to have been yanked from the comics pages. The strip is, in fact, gone, but only temporarily while Garry Trudeau takes some time off. Editors tried to alert readers with a box in Monday's Calendar section next to the comics headlined "Comics sampling." On Tuesday the headline was changed to "Trudeau vacation." Both days the box explained that the artist was taking time off, and The Times would fill that space by trying out new strips until mid-June. Sherry Stern, the editor who oversees the comics, explains in this message:

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