LAist Interview: Kevin Roderick

Kevin Roderick of LA Observed Kevin Roderick, by Marc Goldstein courtesy KCRW.

In May, Kevin Roderick's LA Observed will celebrate its fifth year as one of the city's main online destination for those seeking the inside scoop on media and politics. Roderick, a 25-year veteran of the LA Times and author of two books about Los Angeles, sat down for nearly an hour where talking about the past, present and future of LA Observed, why he thinks people should be wary of Sam Zell, the new owner of the Times, and whether he thinks blogs are harming print newspapers.

Thank you for joining me. Why don’t we start with you telling me a little about your background?

I was a journalism major at CSUN and I was the managing editor at the paper there, the Daily Sundial. I got an internship at the Times out of that and stuck around for spring semester. Those were unpaid internships. It was kind of a coveted thing for college students in those days. I was offered a job out of that and started working while I was still in college part-time. That grew to a full-time gig working first in the Valley and Glendale sections. It kind of grew from there.

What kinds of things did you report on when you were first with the Times?

The very first thing I reported on crime and cops type stuff for the most part. As an intern you are here for part of the day and learning your way around. You do whatever's put in front of you. So I was doing briefs and whatever was the crime the crime f the day. The minor crime of the day because the major crime of the day was done by somebody else. After I started working on the staff I started covering politics. Mostly in the San Fernando Valley and features.

Tell me about your experience as a part of the Pulitzer Prize winning team in the 90s

I went from being the suburban reporter to the education writer Downtown and was kind of a general assignment reporter and then worked in the city county bureau covering City Hall and local politics and urban affairs. Then I became a statewide features reporter. I would travel around California and the west, reporting on stories of interest to me and then I became an editor after my child was born and didn’t want to travel anymore. While I was an editor on the state desk, I participated in helping direct the coverage first of the L.A. riots in 1993 and then the Northridge earthquake in 1994. Those both won staff Pulitzer Prizes.

As someone who had to move around beats, going from crime to education to politics, did you find it was hard to establish a passion? Or, for you at the time, was the passion journalism? In other words, was it less about what you covered and more about the fact that you got to cover it?

That's interesting. It depended on the assignment. When I was covering the Valley in the beginning of my career, that became a sort of passion because it was something I felt I was able to do in a way that no one else was doing; I’d grown up there, it was the beginning of my career and I had all this energy. When I was covering education I wasn’t all that interested in it, but when I started covering City Hall I was. So, it kind of depended on what the material was. My favorite beat was as a statewide reporter because I was very interested in California and got to go to a lot of interesting places and it was a lot of fun.

What was the last thing you wrote for the Times?

I have no idea. Might have been a book review as a year and a half ago.
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But as a beat reporter?

I have no idea.

What were the circumstances under which you left?

I became the Senior Projects Editor, so I was an editor charged with making investigative projects and Page One stories better and then I got wooed away by an upstart magazine called The Industry Standard, a very hot weekly business magazine based in San Francisco covering the Internet economy at a time when there were three, four or five magazine covering the Internet economy and making a lot of money. So I was lured away to open their Los Angeles bureau. So I kind of oversaw their coverage of southern California, Hollywood entertainment, that sort of thing. I was out of an office in Westwood and got a pretty substantial pay increase. It was the old story of getting lured away.

But I guess a lot of things would be a substantial pay increase from the newspaper business.

Well, yes and no. I was fairly well paid as a Senior Editor. It took a substantial offer to get me to go. I don’t think of people at the times as particularly underpaid for the most part. They are making more than people at their counterpart papers, that’s for sure, and making more than just about anyone doing any journalism in Southern California, print wise. And in a lot of cases, those at the LA Times and paid more than reporters at the New York Times and Washington Post who feel like when they are competing with the LA Times feel like they don’t have to do it a with higher salary where at the LA Times thought they did for a little while. So in general, I don't think people at the Times could be considered underpaid for the newspaper industry. I don’t know how it is for the online side.

What led you to start LA Observed in 2003?

The magazine I went to shut down after a year and a half. So I started freelancing and writing books and someone turned me on to blogging software. I had always been kind of web oriented. I used to be a member of the online community called The Well in Northern California. So I had been online centric for a long time. But somebody said, here’s software that makes it easy to publish yourself and I felt there was a need for a media site in la. There wasn’t anything like that besides laexaminer.com at the time and I had sort of taken a different tact and once I started, they were happy to get out of it.

What the reaction from some of the people at the Times when you started to blog about their business?

Well it was largely interested and supportive. I started hearing immediately from a lot of reporters and editors at the paper who told me they were checking out the blog for stuff that was about the Times. Once I started posting memos that were circulated inside the building – they had never been posted outside the building before - the editors started changing their approach to writing the memos. They put a little care into writing them than they used to and I had several of them tell me that that was a direct result of seeing them in print.

GLnKR.jpgGive me an example of a when you saw a direct effect from something you posted in the memos. What was an example of a change you saw?

The memos, in some cases, used to be put out without the right spelling or capitalization or punctuation. They were not meant for - they were an in-house communication that was meant to be read only by the people involved. They never had to explain who anyone was. They referred to first names. Editors realized the outside world was going to see these things and started cleaning up their prose and writing hem in a more business like manner. The editor in Calendar – John Montorio the Features Editor – was notorious for this and he was known for wanting them to be read, wanting the sparkling language to be appreciated.

And as a product of the newspaper?

I guess so. But I think he saw it more as a personal reflection on him.

In reading some of the in house communiqués now, such as when the new innovation point man for the Times said his excitement in joining the paper was not "bullshit," do you think they’ve returned, in some respects, to that nonchalance?

There’s a difference between these emails that fly around and the memos. I’m thinking more about the things I started posting as a small part of what I do but a part that did get a lot of attention. Where the personnel memos where people were [talking about] promotions, demotions and changes in beats and that kind of thing and I haven’t detected any change to anything less formal now.

You’ve devoted considerable attention to Sam Zell and that change of ownership. Have you been in contact with him?
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No, I’ve heard nothing from Sam Zell or his folks. I’ve met him and saw him speak in Westwood and went up and introduced myself afterward and chatted with him. He’s not a big reader of online things. He claims that he doesn’t look at ay websites, especially blogs. He claims the only website he looks at is Bloomberg.

How do you think that jives with somebody who is at the forefront of an industry that, by and large, will be made by the Internet?

There are a number of things about him that are paradoxes. One of them is that he’s preaching the need to remake he business, but he’s sort of an old-fashioned newspaper reader. He reads three or four newspapers: the New York Times the Wall Street Journal and the Chicago Tribune every day. He reads them in paper and doesn’t do a lot of online reading. He’s probably going on a combination of gut instinct and what people are telling him that that’s where the business has to go. It’s not something that’s true to him in is practice as a news consumer. That’s what makes it interesting.

The reason that I'm directing so much attention his way is because he’s the biggest media player in Los Angeles right now. If he had just simply bought the company and remained in Chicago and simply directed the company as a CEO than he wouldn’t be as interesting. He’s said he’s going to be making a lot of the decisions. He’s kind of a pseudo editor of the Los Angeles Times and all the Tribune newspapers and all the TV news stations, like KTLA. So his attitudes and opinions are of great interest to those who are interested in what happens to L.A. news coverage. And that’s who reads LA Observed, people who are involved in all walks of life, but people who are involved, and actively, in the community of Los Angeles in some way.

Should be people be worried about the fact that someone who has been callous in tone at times in terms of his attitude toward the Internet will take an active role in Los Angeles media?

I don’t know about worried, but I think people should be and are wary of him. I’m waiting to be convinced that he’s someone to be looked at as a positive force. He might be. I don’t know. He’s certainly aware that there are problems facing the news business and the LA Times in particular and seems to want to redirect the industry in some way, but we don’t really know in the direction he wants to go and some of the things he’s said are fairly alarming for people who care about quality journalism. He doesn’t really care about what journalists think about anything.

How so?

He’s announced that he doesn’t care what journalists think about the news or about the decisions they make an have always made in editing newspapers and every other form of media. He doesn’t seem to like journalists very much. He’s kind of poo pooed foreign and national news as something that people who read the LA Times don’t really want and he seems kind of disparaging of people who are asking him what his standards will be. We don’t know yet what his news standards will be. He hasn’t said anything that’s not new, but it’s that some of the things he’s said has been considered and rejected by quality publishers through the decades.

So, we'll see if he seems like somebody who wants to roll back the clock or does he have an idea of what the future of news media should be. I’ve been watching him fairly closely and I don’t have an idea of where he stands on that. He’s said some things like, ‘If people want cute kittens on the front page then well give them that,’ or something like that. That’s alarming to journalists who have seen plenty of publishers who have one that route and failed.

Having said that, where do you see the LA Times in he next five or ten years?

I wouldn’t have any idea looking out that far, but in the next year or two we are going to see them put more focus on their online product than their print product and it remains to be seen if the people who are there are the right ones to pull that off successfully.

The reputation that brings people to the LA Times has been earned through the years primarily through the print product. The online version is not known for its enterprise journalism or investigations or being particularly smart about anything it covers. The Times, in moving toward an online presence have to pay heed to [the Internet]. It’s a risky business to suddenly switch from the kind of journalism you have become famous for to something different. Perhaps that’s what the people want and perhaps that’s going to work out. I hope it does. I personally get most of my news online. And have no qualms at all about seeing more and more news media go online. I think it’s the perfect kind of medium for news information. But it can be done right or it can be done wrong and it remains to be seen what way the LA Times is going to go on that.

What about other staff writers or even David Hiller, have you been in contact with him or any others?

I have pretty steady contact with a fair number of people at the Times. I could use more, but I'm in contact with people I know and people I've never met but have communicated online with in various ways. I’ve had a little bit of email with Hiller. I know Russ Stanton, the new editor, though we haven’t spoken since he’s become the editor. I worked there for 25 years so I'm pretty well connected with that place and the people who work there.

Is that how you get the emails and internal memos?

They are not something I seek out. I just receive them. I almost have never asked for any of them, it’s just something that people there feel should be out.

The LA Times has more than 30 blogs on a range of subjects. Do you think they have helped the Times or hurt them?

They've certainly helped to bring eyeballs to the website. Whether that helps the Times or not remains to be seen. It’s generally a plus to have page views, but it’s not necessarily a big plus. It depends on why they are coming and whether they are staying or coming back and, most importantly, whether these page views can be converted to dollars. As Zell points out, the Times is all about being a business. They have to replace the ads that have been leading the print edition or it’s a failure no matter what else goes on.

Some of them [blogs] are pretty good, some are mediocre and some show a lot of enterprise and others don’t. They are pretty cheap to do, so that’s good but they are not the key drivers to the Times website but they certainly are an increasing part of it.

You mentioned that Mark Cuban said blogs are a big mistake for newspapers. Do you agree?

I thought there was some interesting insight there. It is a risky business to recast your brand. His point was that newspapers have a brand and they’re the place where people come for filtered information. They’re looking for editor’s choices and reporter’s choices to be made for them. That’s why people go there. If you switch to blogs and give people information they can get anywhere else, then what’s the specialness of that brand anymore? I think that’s a legitimate warning to send out and I don’t know where it all leads.
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I do think the LA Times is welcoming blogs that are not necessarily representing or reflecting the Times expertise or editorial decision-making or editorial standards. They are going for a more democratic approach, a more grass roots approach, which can work. That’s what most blogs are and maybe what most blog readers are looking for. Whether they are going to look for that from the LA Times I don't know. They don’t need the LA Times to find out what Joe everyman in LA thinks about something on a blog. They can just go to the blogs that are out there. Where the Times and other papers could be different is to improve on that somehow and to bring the editorial heft of the newsroom to the blog newsroom. That’s the only advantage they have.

Do you think it was a conscious effort to go with the everyman version of writing instead of the experts?

I don’t know. I haven’t talked to the people in charge enough to see which path they are going down. It seems like a path they are going down at this point. For example on the Lakers blog and the Dodgers blog – both big traffic drivers – the decision was made not to go with the sports writers at the paper who know an awful lot and potentially could be pretty good bloggers. They went with two guys who don’t have a lot of experience with that and went down a different path. There are some pretty big national journalists who do logs quite successfully like James Wolcott at Vanity Fair and Andrew Sullivan. They are bringing not just bright writing, which is necessary in blogs, but they also know something. The Lakers blog is doing fine, but I don’t know how the Dodgers blog is doing. It doesn’t turn up on the most trafficked blogs. There are plenty of blogs about the Dodgers outside of the LA Times where I go first. I never check the LA Times bog on the Dodgers and yet I read blogs about the Dodgers all the time.
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And there is Jon Weisman's Dodger Thoughts, which appeals to a very select audience with what I consider to be superior writing and insight.

Yes. One of the things you should know about the Times sports blogs is that they did not come out of the sports department it came out of the online department. There’s a pretty large gulf at the Times between the print newsroom and the online newsroom. It’s closing compared to what it used to be, but it’s still pretty prominent. I do think Jon Weisman's Dodgers blog is great. It’s my number one portal into what the Dodgers are doing, but I don’t think it would be right for just the average reader. The Times does need to appeal more broadly, though it does depend on how they are going to do it and who they are going for. They cant just go for students of the game the same way Dodger Thoughts does but does it have to be the same broadness that is in the sports section? I don’t know. I don’t think so.

In a 2005 interview with Downtown News, you said LA Observed would be different in a year from that point and you don’t know how your site would fit in to the blogosphere. Hindsight being 20/20, how has it fit in?

I don’t remember exactly what was going on in 2005, but…

At that point the blog was two years old, I believe.

Yeah, and I’m trying to think… In the beginning, the blog was very media focused and I was writing a history book about Los Angeles so it encompassed that. Than it became more of a community blog and I started covering politics for Los Angeles Magazine. I’m their main political writer. They mayor’s race was going on - I was covering that for them, and it became another string of LA Observed, covering local politics because no one was really doing that online. That has continued because I got a really good reaction to that. There’s a hunger for smart and timely news about what’s going on in City Hall and elsewhere in the community, both aggregation and original enterprise reporting.

The other big change was adding side blogs and contributors. That’s not something that LA Observed was envisioned as doing in 2005. I still write all the main blog, except when I'm on vacation. But there are these side blogs that offers these side views.

Do you have a staff that you pay?

No, nobody is paid at LA Observed. It’s not set up as a business. There’s no company behind us, there are no investors behind us, no headquarters in New York. It’s a just blog by people in L.A. blogging about L.A.

You are now approaching the fifth anniversary of the site. How has the trajectory of LA Observed been compared to your intentions for LA Observed?

I didn’t set out with any path in mind. There’s no business plan. I do reevaluate it every year to see whether I like it and if its still growing and whether it’s doing OK, and the answer to those this year are, Yes.

The big change is that last year I took a day job for the first time in several years. I was sort of tired of trying to get by on freelancing. I’m the Director of the UCLA Newsroom website. That has cut into my time with LA Observed. I’ve been a little less involved the past nine months or so. I’ve had to sacrifice some things. For a while there I was competitive with breaking news with the Times and other blogs in L.A., but I’ve kind of had to give that up and go back to the core things about LA Observed that the readers like.

What are your responsibilities at UCLA?

I’m essentially the editor of this publication. I put together stories, news releases and edit them and make sure they get online in a professional fashion.

Where are you living now?

In Mar Vista.

At what point did you move from the Valley to the City?

I haven’t lived in the Valley since the early 80s.

Do you consider yourself a City person or Valley person?

A little bit of both. I grew up in the Valley and have a lot of connection with it. Until two months ago my parents owned the house I grew up in. my siblings live thee and a lot of my friends. I’ve lived in different parts of the city.

Where?

On Riverside Drive, which I guess is Frogtown, Culver City, Mid-City, Santa Monica, Mar Vista. The longest amount of time was in n Mid-City, around Pico/Fairfax.

Is that why you wrote the book on mid-Wilshire?

No, I was a hired gun for that. The Valley book was one I started on my own, but the mid-Wilshire one I was hired to do the research and edit

Any plans to write more books, in addition to that and the San Fernando Valley one you already wrote?

No. There are always ideas, but no plans right now.

What blogs or websites do you read with regularity?

Unfortunately, my reading has become very directed by what I need to do for LA Observed. My list for what I need to check in on for LA Observed might be different than I’d like to or that I read on weekends. But for the site, there’s Curbed and LAist and Metroblogs. Witness LA is one I find I have to check in on. She’s doing a lot of original reporting and commentary on L.A. and something I feel I need to check in on. I have to go to TMZ sometimes and see what they’re doing, which is not my funnest read but I do feel I need to. I feel they do do enough original reporting. I check in on CityWatch and some of the political blogs. Even Variety is doing a pretty good political blog these days called Wilshire & Washington. I try to get to 20 a day, but as my days have gotten tighter, I've had to be more selective.

Kevin, thanks very much for joining me.

Pleasure.

Photo of Gary Leonard and Kevin Roderick at the Democratic Debate in Hollywood by markland; photo of Sam Zell by edpadgett; Dodger Thoughts by shiftyj26 via Flickr. Los Angeles Times building in 1898 via Los Angeles Fire Department Historical Archive