In tough times, praise for writing and investigations
Recent tales of death and (use of our) taxes hit readers hard: Thomas Curwen's profile of one 90-year-old man contemplating his fate evoked responses from more than 350 readers. And Michael Rothfeld's report on how state officials "have made free use of government expense accounts with little oversight" brought plaudits from readers -- and change from state leaders.
In the midst of widely publicized cuts in the newspaper industry, it's not surprising that many of the readers who took time to praise graceful writing and investigations into uses and misuses of power also talked of the fate of news organizations and The Times.
"Remarkable article on Edwin Shneidman," wrote Telle Riikonen of Santa Barbara of the Feb. 28 Column One. "I read it twice. The second time was just to enjoy the language and the feeling of the man and his long life as conveyed by your eye for detail in his house. I take serious journalism very seriously and lament the disappearance of long, well-written features and profiles in newspapers."
For Rothfeld's March 1 piece came this e-mail from Fernanda Benevides of Laguna Niguel: "I love the Los Angeles Times and your exposés.... Thank you for your article and the courage to inform the public of what really these questionable characters are doing."
A story about death -- especially, specifically, waiting for death -- might not seem the most likely to bring hundreds of fond notes.
"Most are quite amazing, confessional in tone, relating additional stories about death and dying -– and waiting," Curwen said in an e-mail when asked what he'd heard from readers.
Curwen's "thoughtful and moving article," wrote George I. Meyer of Long Beach, "brought back memories of my parents when they reached the end of their life. I helped 'mid-wife' my mother from this world and felt very fortunate to have done that, especially since she was the one who brought me into this world."
In a follow-up note, Meyer added: "I think that as the nature of daily newspapers radically changes, it is important to have thoughtful articles such as the one Tom did on Mr. Shneidman available to readers. I don't know how I would see it otherwise. I thank the L.A. Times for allowing its reporters the time to spend with people who are not celebrities or famous for giving birth to numerous babies." His note concluded with, "Best to you and to the continued survivability of The Times!"
"Lovely piece," wrote Lorraine Carpou of Simi Valley. "I relish my L.A. Times reading every morning, and when I read exceptional writing such as yours I am so grateful. He is a wonderful subject, and your piece on him reads like his wife's epitaph, 'Beautiful, bright, loving and serene.' I hope your paper stays around long enough for me to read more of you."
As for Michael Rothfeld's March 1 investigation, Javier Rodriguez of Highland spoke for many when he wrote: "Great investigative reporting. Keep up the good work on showing the public about the truth in politics. I'll be looking forward to your next story.
Rodriguez and others didn’t have to wait too long. A March 6 article reported the resignation of state Cabinet official Rosario Marin, one of 10 officials whose expenditures were examined in the March 1 piece on frequent taxpayer-financed travel by Schwarzenegger administration staffers.
On March 7, the headline told the story: "Schwarzenegger institutes new ethics protocol."
Of the story that started it all, three more typical reactions:
From Marjorie Betz of Huntington Beach: "Thank you for bringing this mess to the public's attention. I really admire your paper's bird-dogging of all the government waste. Please keep up the good work."
From Carolyn Troadec, also of Huntington Beach: "Thank you so much for this investigative reporting, it's so important. I know all the newspapers are in trouble, but I for one just love poring over my daily L.A. Times over breakfast."
David Rosen of Los Angeles: "Excellent article! I was angered, though not surprised, to learn of the absurd things we California tax payers subsidize for well-paid state officials. As a result of reading your article, I am going to write our governor and other state officials a letter expressing my disapproval and anger over this matter (especially during these times). Great work. Please keep Times readers apprised of developments on this."
A coda in reader Riikonen's concluding line to Curwen: "Thank you, once again, for the compassion we as readers could feel in your writing. It is much needed. In the end, creative content, not the ad revenue, will be the savior of printed media, books included."
Photo: Edwin Shneidman, from Tom Curwen's story: "The stream of visitors to his house is nearly constant. He is their Charon, the ferryman who shuttled souls across the River Styx." Credit: Liz O. Baylen / Los Angeles Times.