The Snakes of Spring Street

I recently received a note from a friend. I should point out that this person is a recognized authority in his field — even quoted in that capacity by the paper in question here — and has written books and magazine articles for many years

I won’t use his name, nor that of the person contacted at the paper. Otherwise, here’s what he wrote:

about a year or so ago I had a very nasty experience with XXXXX XXXXXX of The Los Angeles Times, so rotten in fact that I almost took it to court (where I am 7 and 0, if you count my wins like a baseball pitcher). The dude is a word thief, totally stole a story idea and when I contacted the Times for a correction I got an unusually vile letter from their editorial staff who checks on such thing and I was denied. It was very weird, and I’m still pissed off about it. Any suggestions to straighten this problem out?

I could only reply: “Welcome to the club, pal!”

Back in the days when there were still some second-run theaters in Hollywood, one on Hollywood Blvd. had an unusual and (I thought) commendable policy: instead of booking two more-or-less recent releases that had exhausted their lifetime at the multiplexes, this theater manager would book one of those with a vintage picture to fill the bill — say (and I’m just making this up) “Rocky IV” and “Golden Boy.”

What inspired that decision? What’s the reaction of the studios? How are the audience members (in those days, I imagined, many of them looking for a place to sleep off “lunch”) responding? That sounded like a story idea to me, and the paper I’d been writing for for several years had been closed by its parent company, the Hearst Corporation.

I called a former colleague, who was by that point in a fairly prominent position in the Los Angeles Times’s entertainment section. I figured I had a scoop: then as now, The Times only ventured into Hollywood to cover a premiere or review what they hoped would be considered a trendy restaurant or night club. I told him my idea, and asked which editor I should pitch it to.

His answer was to the effect that I shouldn’t bother: if they liked the idea, they’d just say they were already working on it, and assign it to a staff writer. So I didn’t.

Some time later, I had another idea. Army Archerd, in Daily Variety, had dropped a line into his news roundup column to the effect that Andy Williams would soon be fronting a theater in Branson, Missouri. As a fan of country music, I knew of Branson and environs as a travel destination with country acts as entertainment, but this was something of far broader potential consequence.

This time, I approached The Times‘ travel editor. I had a previous professional relationship with the person; who, in fact, had been (in another capacity) one of the first people at the Herald Examiner to have given me one of those freelance assignments that eventually led to my being hired as a staff writer. Maybe more to the point, by this time, I was in the middle of what would be a ten-year association with the paper, covering the Ventura County theater scene* for the paper’s local edition. I was part of the family. Downtown regarded the regional editions as, at best, an unwanted stepchild**, but I was still family.

I wrote what I remember as a glorious pitch, researched and with bullet points dealing with the area’s history, how much money was being invested in the new venture, and the fact that Andy Williams was by no definition a “country” act (The Times’s attitude toward country music having not yet matured).

I didn’t hear a word. For days. For weeks. I didn’t want to call and check, because I didn’t want to be pushy: this person knew who I was, and that I was qualified.

Months passed, literally. I had pretty much forgotten the whole thing when, one Sunday — Sunday! — afternoon, the phone rang. It was this editor’s assistant, telling me that the article had been carefully considered, and that Branson didn’t meet the paper’s criteria as a suitable destination.

Besides, she added, I wouldn’t want to write for the travel section anyway, because they paid so little (a lot of the travel stuff that isn’t staff-generated is, or at least was, written by freelancers who’d place the same story in several papers; chances are they didn’t spend as much on tickets and accommodations as you or I would).

Keep in mind that I wouldn’t have been traveling to Branson; just making some phone calls. Of course if the paper wanted to send me (they pay for their tickets), I’d have been happy to go.

I hung up, disappointed not only that what I thought to be en excellent subject had been turned, but that my old working-buddy — mentor, in a sense — hadn’t turned me down personally, but assigned it to a subordinate (whose job this would usually be, but the editor and I had a relationship)

The reasons for all of this became very clear, either Monday or maybe Tuesday, when I opened my daily paper. On the front page of the “Calendar” (entertainment) section was a major story on the “new” Branson. The writer was a Times staffer, who’d gone down there to investigate personally.

A coincidence? Perhaps. In fact, under normal circumstances I’d have assumed it to be one; as a long-time reader of the paper I knew that editors of various sections occasionally ran virtually the same story; even, sometimes, on the same day. Clearly, they seldom spoke with one another.

Unless, maybe, if they were sleeping together.

As to “family”: the assistant who had made the rejection call told me at the time that the only reason they bothered doing it at all was because they thought I was on staff. If they’d known I was freelance (which I was, though in the paper at least once every week), she wouldn’t have taken the time to phone. None of the people alluded to in my experiences are still with the paper. Nor, for that matter, am I.

And Branson’s doing OK, too. Why, some Los Angeles Times readers might have visited there.

* more robust than you might think, but that’s another blog entry

** the regional editions held Downtown in equal disdain

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