Courage in the face of danger -- and bankruptcy

Rainey is a Times staff writer.

I've seen my colleagues plunge into rioting mobs, drive into the hills as they exploded with fire and -- on days when the earth shook -- leave their anxious families to rush to crumpled buildings.

You think a little bankruptcy scares this crew? You think Chapter 11 has us down? You think we fear the future?

Well, yes. Yes. And hell yes. In the ragtag old Los Angeles Times newsroom, emotions run as threadbare as the quarter-century-old carpet.

Editors quip about whether their company credit cards will work. Reporters wonder what a crew chief at McDonald's might earn. Dark thoughts abound about Tribune boss Sam Zell, who bet on the real estate market just right and the news market oh so wrong.

But luckily for the newspaper and the customers who read it, Timespeople multitask like nobody's business.

So, in the hours after the wires announced that Tribune had filed for bankruptcy, Tina Susman got out of her sickbed, donned her long black coat and head scarf and took to the fearsome streets of Baghdad.

Howard Blume spent another long day glued to the phone, so he could tell Los Angeles the story of the do-good school superintendent who ended up doing so poorly.

Chris Dufresne dissected college football coaches and their self-serving votes in the final NCAA regular season poll.

Patrick Goldstein put the finishing touches on another lovely un-Hollywood tale, about a guy from Minneapolis who wrote the script for the latest Clint Eastwood movie in a bar.

When journalists don't know what to do or what to think about their increasingly precarious profession, they tend to turn to some stranger, ask a lot of questions and write another story.

They just keep doing it. Maybe it's glandular.

Newspaper people understand that the world is changing and that their business has to change too. As Jon Stewart said on the "Depressing News Riddle" segment of "The Daily Show": "What's black and white and completely over? . . . It's newspapers."

The good news is that although readers have fled to the Internet in hordes, many of them still read The Times. The newspaper has more readers today, courtesy of latimes.com, than it did in the 1970s and '80s, when the good times seemed like they'd never end.

But like just about every paper in the country, we remain dependent on the printed edition, which pays most of the bills but has seen circulation drop well below 1 million. At last count, weekday circulation was 739,000.

Despite the troubles, the paper expects to make about $100 million this year. That's net, and a healthy total for many businesses. But it's a shadow of the $240 million we cleared just two years ago.

The last thing we needed at this moment was what Mr. Zell brought us in piles -- debt. The low-money-down, balloon-payment-laden "deal from hell," as Zell once called it, left us the most debt-laden newspaper company in America.

With nearly $13 billion in obligations, Zell's buyout of The Times and Tribune's other seven daily papers and 23 TV stations has fast-forwarded our day of reckoning.

So here we are. Glandular but employed. For now.

For a creative group, the 660 Times news employees exhibit an astounding lack of creativity: Most can't imagine doing anything else.

Susman confesses that the financial troubles at Tribune sometimes shake her motivation, making her wonder whether she is putting her life on the line for corporate masters who don't necessarily value what she does.

But she is a born storyteller and relishes living in the shoes of people unlike her. In Baghdad, she constantly worries about the welfare of the dozen Iraqi staffers who struggle to survive in a city where violence springs up in an instant.

"It's just crucial to tell people what the rest of the world lives like," she said. "I guess I feel at times we have to shake them from their complacency."

Why do they do it? Metro reporter Louis Sahagun still remembers words he heard, as a young man, from one of The Times' old salts, Eric Malnic.

"He said, 'Let me tell you a secret about this business that you already know in your heart,' " Sahagun recalled. "He said, 'This is the only business in the world that allows you to become intimate with all kinds of people, at the most fascinating and incredible moments of their entire lives.' "

After three decades as a newspaperman, Sahagun, 58, still yearns for those moments.

He chased smoke and flames across Santa Barbara for 36 hours last month, until it might have made some sense to take a break. But when he awoke to news of a new fire in Sylmar, Sahagun sped south. No one had to tell him to go.

"There are editors I really respect here, and millions of people who are depending on me and my colleagues," Sahagun said of his time on the fire lines. "They deserve every single bit of energy and wisdom and care we can bring."

In Sylmar, Sahagun gathered information about people who lost a lot, sometimes everything. He helped tell stories about firefighters, always courageous, who helped save a little.

It's not the ethic of our profession to talk much about it, but there are people besides the rescue crews who rush toward, not away from, danger.

At a time like this, it seems worth remembering that the newshounds sometimes show a little courage too.

--

james.rainey@latimes.com

Copyright © 2019, Los Angeles Times
EDITION: California | U.S. & World
56°