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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How many times does the LAT have to tell you — somebody’s still suing a photographer in New York City

Even though they’re down to 50 pages today, the Los Angeles Times finds so little news to report  that they can run the same story more than once — something that happens when you lay off enough editors.

Or maybe they just think that New York-based photographer Annie Liebovitz’s troubles are so important to us in Los Angeles that they want to make special-sure that we see the story.

First, assuming that you’re reading the paper front-to-back, and not just jumping to the Sports section, we turn to the Business section; in the “Briefings” catch-all column:

Leibovitz still owes, suit says

Photographer Annie Leibovitz is facing new accusations of not paying her bills less than a month after she struck a deal that was supposed to have resolved her financial problems.

Investment firm Brunswick Capital Partners sued the celebrity photographer Friday in a Manhattan court for failing to pay at least $315,000 in fees it claims are due as part of her financing deal with the private-equity firm Colony Capital.

Brunswick entered into an agreement with the two parties in February 2009 to seek “strategic financing” for the photographer, it said Friday in a lawsuit in New York State Supreme Court in Manhattan.

In exchange for a $50,000 initial retainer and weekly $10,000 payments, Brunswick worked “exhaustively” to obtain a list of lenders for Leibovitz that included Colony, Brunswick said in the suit.

Leibovitz, 60, was sued in July by a creditor, Art Capital Group Inc., which accused her of reneging on a sales agreement connected with a $24-million loan. She settled that case in September.

Colony settled Leibovitz’s debt with Art Capital Group on March 8 and announced “a new partnership” with the photographer.

The Calendar section has a similar catch-all column, called “Quick Takes”, from which we learn — again, today:

Firm wants fees from Leibovitz (AP)

Photographer Annie Leibovitz was sued by Brunswick Capital Partners LP, a Manhattan-based investment firm, for failing to pay at least $315,000 in fees it claims are due as part of her financing deal with private-equity firm Colony Capital LLC.

In a lawsuit filed April 2 in New York State Supreme Court in Manhattan, Brunswick said it entered into an agreement in February 2009 to seek “strategic financing” for her.

In exchange for a $50,000 initial retainer fee and an additional weekly $10,000 retainer payments, Brunswick obtained a list of lenders for Leibovitz, Brunswick claims in the complaint. Brunswick also alleges it’s entitled to a 2% “success fee” stemming from Leibovitz’s deal with Colony Capital.

A spokesman for Leibovitz wasn’t immediately available for comment.

Newsgathering for beginners

One of my fantasies, upon entering the sort of involuntary semi-retirement I now enjoy, was to teach.

Nothing as ordinary (or boring, or difficult) as post-graduate economics or high school history; but something drawing from my own experience, and imparting knowledge that my “students” could actually use in their daily life.

What I wanted to offer was a course — college extension, maybe, or Learning Annex — in “How to Read a Newspaper.”It would cover everything from terminology (“op-ed,” “above the fold,” “graf.” “burying the lede,” etc.); to how and why stories appear in the paper; and why certain names keep reappearing (often because the reporters and editors can’t be bothered to find new spokespeople, sometimes because they want to drop what they believe to be fashionable names, and occasionally because they want free passes to Disneyland).

Maybe I could even teach them to fold newspapers into a “pressman’s hat,” as they used to do back in the press rooms.

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I could do it (other then the hat bit), having worked for general-circulation papers and trade papers for many years, and having read at least one daily since my early teens. My family subscribed to the Los Angeles Times and the local, evening paper; while in college, I read the local papers in New Orleans and Santa Fe; and currently I read the Los Angeles Times every day, and the Sunday New York Times. Plus, the L.A. Weekly (for the colonics and “massage” ads), and, occasionally, weeklies like The Tolucan Times, from nearby L.A. suburbs. I’m a newsprint guy.

Of course, now that newspapers have become less and less thick with editorial content and advertising (not a coincidence! I would teach), not to mention less and less relevant, so would my figurative class attract fewer students. At this point, I’m sorry to say, I see neither demand nor need for a class in “How to Read a Newspaper.”

Still. pretty much every day I read something that I’d like to discuss in my “class”: why the West Side of Los Angeles gets consistently more coverage than the rest of the county; why the restaurant critic doesn’t cover places where people actually eat; and why the Los Angeles Times‘s pop music critic lives in Tuscaloosa, Alabama*. (Not that she always lived there. When The Times hired her, she was living in Seattle. Any time spent in Los Angeles was, for all practical purpose, a transitory phase).

Here’s a quick sample, from today’s paper. I’ll quote the first two paragraphs of Catherine Saillant’s reportage of corruption in a small, rural town just outside the Los Angeles County limits:

Residents of Fillmore followed their usual rhythms this week, gathering at the local Starbucks to hash out recent events as giant farm tractors and motorists rolled by on nearby California 126.

Talk turned to Pete Egedi, the town’s former fire chief, who has been under a cloud since he was accused two years ago of embezzling tens of thousands of city dollars. The latest news about Egedi is like a black eye on City Hall that won’t go away, residents say.

Here, I would explain, is what (probably) really happened: After driving approximately an hour from The Times‘s Spring Street headquarters, via freeway and local road, the reporter finds the civic center (you have to turn off the highway — such as it is — to get there). Looking, as we all will, for a familiar sight, she spots a Starbucks. It’s been a long and rather tedious drive, and a nice, venti half-caf cappuccino sounds like a good idea. When the reporter enters the Starbucks, she spots several people — they must be locals; Fillmore is out of the way, and only a tourist destination a few times each year — sitting around a table, discussing last night’s episode of “The Biggest Loser.”

“Talk turned to Pete Egedii…”

“Excuse me,” the reporter says, interrupting the conversation (she’s a reporter; that’s her job), “Do any of you know who Pete Egedi is?”

The rest comes easily.

Incidentally: I’ve been to Fillmore, on several occasions (well, “though it” on several occasions, going from Santa Paula to I-5 and on to home; “to it” a couple of times, to see the nifty railroad). And though Fillmore is a predominantly agricultural community, with lots of hard-working farm folk who might be, on the average, somewhat larger and more muscular than the crowd the Times reporter may normally hang with, I’d say that calling them, even the motorists, “giant” is something of an exaggeration.

Or a job for the copy editors, if the paper still has any.

* Update: She is no longer the paper’s rock critic, having landed a better job elsewhere. And the current LAT rock critic actually lives here. Don’t know what they were thinking.

Mr. Erskine, meet Ms. Banks

Something momentous occurred in the life of Los Angeles Times columnist Sandy Banks the other day. She’s pleased to
share it with her readers in today’s paper.

I remembered from my first go-round to bring necessities not listed in the college dormitory’s move-in guide: plastic hangers, scented drawer liners, tools to un-jam a balky closet door.

But what I didn’t remember when my daughter and I arrived last week at San Francisco State is how difficult it can be to drop off your kid, leave campus and get on with your life.

I’d been through the drill in 2003 with my oldest daughter. Then, we wandered wide-eyed through every reception and information session that Stanford offered. Two days later, we said tearful goodbyes and I headed home, confident that my child would be well cared for.

This time, my youngest daughter and I joined an endless sea of families jostling for 20-minute parking spots to unload computers and microwaves and cases of water bottles. Then we hauled our stuff up four flights of stairs.

And it struck me that if Stanford was a village, this was a city. And I was about to leave behind an 18-year-old who was pawing through our carefully packed boxes for the teddy bear she’d had since she was a baby…

I wonder if she ever chats with fellow Times columnist Chris Erskine, who writes in another of today’s sections:

Our Pickett’s Charge into the Midwest is a roaring success. We drop off the little girl at a fine school that, for a mere 30 or 40 grand, will keep tabs on her for an entire academic year. Good deal, I say. Heck, she spends that much on Starbucks.

“I’d have paid more,” I tell Posh.

“We don’t have any more,” she says.

“Oh.”

By the way, if you’re taking a daughter to college soon, might I recommend renting one of those C-130 transport planes, a whopping-big aircraft with abundant trunk space. That’s what we did, and it took us only two round-trip flights.

The first load was entirely shoes. The second trip was scarves and scrapbooks. We shipped the rest ahead of time (thanks, UPS!).

Not since the Berlin Airlift has the world experienced anything like this. Evidently, freshman year now requires four tons of clothes, hangers, little clutch purses, cheap IKEA storage units, tape dispensers, tennis rackets, silverware, ramen noodles, gauze. I swear, Posh and I were married 20 years before we accumulated this much junk…

I’d written not so long ago about the seeming failure of Times editors to keep track of what’s coming up in their papers. If they had, wouldn’t it make sense to run the two columns together — or at least to cross-reference them?

If the Los Angeles Times goes out of business, don’t shoot the messenger!

The copy of the Los Angeles Times that floated to my doorstep this morning was 56 pages, total. This includes the front, business, sports and “Calendar” (entertainment) sections.

What it doesn’t include is a blow-in advertisement supplement that’s been a Tuesday tradition.

And I think I may have something to do with that.

About a month ago, I looked in my local (less than a mile away) Ralphs supermarket; they were offering some pretty good prices on a couple of items I liked. When I got to the store, much higher prices were marked on the aisles — unusual, as the sale prices are usually displayed.

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Several days later, I came with the ad in hand, and showed it to one of the clerks. She seemed surprised and puzzled — yes, the ad was for the current week — and took it to the manager. He said it had nothing to do with his store; but, to his credit, honored those prices anyway.

I then emailed Ralphs, who called me back a few days later.

I explained that while the top third or so of the ad promoted a new store opening in the San Fernando Valley (quite some distance from me), there was no indications that the prices were for that store only. And if they were, why would the ad be distributed in Hollywood?

The customer service person had no answer, but said she’d pass along the information.

Next week, the prices in the supplement were the same as those in my store.

Last week, the top of the ad also promoted the store; and, again, the advertised prices didn’t match those in my store.

It took me a while — two weeks — but at last, and with a little help, I figured it out.

I’m the only person in my apartment building who subscribes to The Times. I have no idea why I do, these days, other than inertia; but that’s subject for another, and continuing, discussion.

The ads — for Ralphs and a number of other companies, including supermarkets, car tune-up places and so on — are packaged by a company called RedPlum. They’re organized to the degree that those of us who don’t get their ads in the paper, get them in the mail. And vice-versa; I don’t get ’em in the mail.

Last week, when I got the second “wrong” ad, I looked at a copy someone had received in the mail and thrown away. It was for Ralphs, but a different ad, and one not featuring the Studio City location. I took it to the store, and the sale prices matched.

Clearly, the wrong edition of the RedPlum/Ralphs supplement was being inserted in my copy of the Times. Could I be only my copy? It seems so, in that the store manager and the customer service person had seemed so surprised when I brought it to their attention the first week. Could I be the only person in a fairly wide area who (a) subscribes to The Times and (b) pays any attention to ads for the biggest supermarket chain in Southern California? Evidently so. I mentioned as much to the Ralphs customer service person.

In the same paper, in the RedPlum folder, was a single sheet ad for the package. It read, in part:

Look in your mailbox for RedPlum savings. Plan your shopping list with the circulars inside and come ready to save. See what’s on sale that these grocery stores: Ralphs, Albertsons, Smart & Final, Pavilions, Food4Less…

Effective August 4, these circulars will be delivered primarily by mail. The following newspapers will also include the RedPlum package:

…and then it lists nine regional papers, none of which are The Los Angeles Times.

Today came the condensed paper; no RedPlum insert. There was one, however, in my mailbox.

Did Ralphs decide that the wrongly distributed ad was not only not worth what they paid too have it distributed, but bad for the company’s image with customers?

They wouldn’t tell me, of course.

But I do know that The Times has suffered the loss of such out-of-business grocery chains as Lucky, Hughes, Mayfair, and Safeway; and department stores the Broadway, May Company, Buffums, Robinson’s, Montgomery Ward, and he like; home electronic stores Good Guys and Circuit City (also Pacific Stereo, University Stereo and such relics of the ’70s). Then there’s the classified advertising they’ve lost to the Internet.

They really could use RedPlum. Let’s see how long it takes them to get their act together.

You can say that again!

A “budget” is newspaper talk for a list of what’s being prepared for the upcoming issue. Editors can see what other people are working on, decide which stories get the more prominent placement, and so on.

Evidently, the budget has been a casualty in the Los Angeles Times‘s effort to save money — along with eliminating sections, decimating staff, raising prices, and so on.

In today’s “Business” section, there’s a reasonably long piece by staff reporter David Colker, dealing with runpee.com.

Just when you thought the Internet provided every possible information service, along comes Runpee.com.

The website lists current movies in theaters, and suggests points in the action during which you could quickly run to the restroom without missing anything substantial.

For example, let’s say you’re watching “Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince” and feeling the need. Runpee (which almost sounds like the name of a character in the movie) suggests that you hold on until minute 33, at which point “Dumbledore says, ‘Off to bed, pip-pip.’ ”

Or, the site suggests, you could wait until 1 hour and 47 minutes, when “Harry invites Professor Slughorn to go and see Hagrid with him…”

Same paper; same issue; “Calendar” section; lengthy Associated Press story:

New York — The mid-movie dash to the restroom can turn us into calculating Usain Bolt wannabes: Ah, this looks like a lull — time to dash.

When we return to our seats, we pray the answer to “What did I miss?” isn’t “Darth Vader is really Luke’s father” or “the girlfriend is really a guy.”

The website RunPee.com can help with such anxious guesswork.

The site provides recommended opportunities to race to the restroom. It tells you when the action or romance wanes, and gives you a cue (“Baby O.J. is taken from Bruno”) for your exit.

The site tells you how long you’ve got and even summarizes what you missed. Since early July, RunPee.com is available as an iPhone app too.

Launched last August, RunPee took off earlier this summer. It’s been one of the season’s runaway hits — a clever idea that has spawned a lot of word-of-mouth from moviegoers.

“Helping your bladder enjoy going to the movies as much as you do,” the site boasts.

It was created by Dan Florio, a 42-year-old Flash developer who got the idea during the three-hour-plus “King Kong” remake in 2005…

You’d think, wouldn’t you, that someone at the paper would know what’s in it before it went to press; especially since all the stories are laid out in that “budget” thing.

I’d speculated, above, that the budget was a recent casualty. Sadly, though, duplication of stories, even in the same issue, is a Times tradition. Enough so that if someone in Editorial would actually pay attention to what was going into the paper, over the years they might save enough money to hire a copy editor or two.

LAT fails to expose Girl Scout consumer ripoff

Back when I had a job, and an office, and all that, I’d always fear the onset of Girl Scout Cookie season. Nothing against the Girl Scouts, or their cookies — which can be quite tasty. But I was under the thought (delusion, evidently), that Girl Scouts were supposed to sell the treats; fund-raising for their troops, but also teaching them salesmanship, teamwork, and other life lessons.

None of which occurred when certain members of our office staff, parents of Girl Scouts, would come in and essentially dare the rest of us not to buy the cookies they were selling on behalf of their progeny. This wasn’t salesmanship, it was extortion (there was the implicit threat that the mothers in question could make life very difficult for us). At best, it showed the girls how to foist their work off on others. I hated the whole thing, as much as I hate Halloween — which I’ll get to if we’re all here in October.

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In today’s L.A. Times‘s Business section, staffer Tiffany Hau (one of those who remain after the paper’s most recent purging of 70 newsroom employees), reports that the current recession has touched Girl Scout cookies.

…the Girl Scouts of the USA has decided to package fewer cookies into boxes of Thin Mints, Do-si-dos and Tagalongs and to shrink the Lemon Chalet Creme cookies.

“In order to give the customer the product they’re used to, instead of raising the price, this was the only alternative: lowering the weight of the cookies rather than asking the customers to pay more,” said Michelle Tompkins, a Girl Scouts spokeswoman.

Particularly as this press release item is in a section called “Consumer Briefs,” one might expect Hau to point out that, however the Girl Scouts sugarcoat it, consumers are still getting less cookie for the same amount of money.

But, of course, she doesn’t.

She does let us know — in another, unrelated piece in the same section — that her boyfriend is named Erik.