I’ve covered a few natural disasters in my time, and the evacuation scenes looked something like this: rooms abandoned in a hurry, filled only with ghosts. Mail piled up, unopened. Phones that kept ringing, with nobody left to answer.
The latest civic emergency comes not with a rush of flames or jolt of earth. It has crept up slowly in an unexpected place: the Los Angeles County Hall of Administration press room.
A slow plague has reduced the corps of journalists who cover county government to four. That’s just four reporters (and one of them has other responsibilities) who focus a critical eye on the biggest local government in America -- a $22-billion behemoth that provides policing, healthcare, welfare and more to a county of nearly 10 million people.
As concern about the economic crisis spreads, everyone should be alarmed that the ranks of the watchdogs assessing the fallout for government have been cut to shreds.
It’s not just at the old Hall of Ad downtown, but at city halls around the state, at the Capitol in Sacramento, where the press corps has been reduced by about a third in recent years, and in Washington, where some newspaper chains have pulled out altogether and most others cut back sharply.
The thinning line of journalists at the county resonates with me, in particular, because of the time I spent at the musty old administration building nearly two decades ago. The enormous programs administered there, and the human cost of failure, have only grown in the meantime.
Only a handful of states have budgets bigger than Los Angeles County’s. NASA spends 25% less in a year. The county’s welfare and foster care departments serve the neediest, whose ranks will only grow as the economy staggers.
And the county’s purse strings are controlled by just five politicians, the Board of Supervisors, whose powerful incumbency means they almost never face serious reelection challenges.
But now just four reporters tend this turf anywhere close to full time: two for The Times, one for eight dailies controlled by newspaper baron William Dean Singleton, and one for City News Service, although that young reporter frequently gets pulled off for other duty.
Back in my day, as many as a dozen full-time reporters walked this beat, filling the row of cramped, glass-walled cubicles on the dimly lit fourth floor just above the supervisors meeting room. (The Times had at least half a dozen other reporters at its downtown mother ship, digging deep into city and county government.)
All these reporters competed for scoops and broke big stories: about the cut-rate leases granted to developers of county-owned Marina del Rey, about inflated pensions for the supervisors, about lavish spending on chauffeured limousines and scandals in county departments.
Now most of those glass-walled offices might as well be museum cases -- desks, faxes and notepads left behind. Like people got out in a hurry.
Some news outlets have gone out of business. Others discontinued regular county coverage. Small nameplates on one wall display the names of the dead or merely departed: the Los Angeles Herald Examiner, the Outlook, the Daily Journal, the Newhall Signal, the Whittier News, KFWB radio, KABC-TV, the Long Beach Press-Telegram and the Pasadena Star News.
The daily newspapers in Long Beach, Torrance and Pasadena all used to station reporters here. But that changed when Singleton snapped up the organizations over the last decade. His eight L.A.-area dailies serve vastly different communities, but they now rely on just one reporter, Troy Anderson, for all stories on county government.
Anderson looked a little stunned when I stopped by to visit last week. Not many visitors find their way to the isolated press room. He conceded it gets lonely there but said I would have to talk to his editor to learn more.
Reporters have been slashed as newspaper revenues sag, with readers and ad revenue fleeing to the Internet.
At a supervisors meeting not long ago, the vast board room remained void of journalists for most of a three-hour session. Maybe that $3.4-million computer system the supes voted to buy to unravel polling place snafus was a good idea. Ditto the $14.9 million for MRIs at county hospitals. But no one in the press was there to notice.
“We have no idea what we are missing, because there simply aren’t enough reporters there -- experienced, aggressive reporters,” said Bill Boyarsky, a former Times city editor who now writes for Truthdig.com. “It’s a huge civic loss. And it’s happening all over the country.”
And don’t think opportunists haven’t sensed an opening.
Boyarsky recalled a lunch with a prominent lobbyist. “He told me he does a lot of his work in the smaller cities, especially down in the southeast [county],” Boyarsky said. “He likes it, because there is no oversight there.”
The supervisors have offered up websites and newsletters, which tend toward pictures of ribbon cuttings and lists of their good deeds.
If you like the house-organ approach, take heart. The supervisors have preliminary plans to launch the county’s own TV station.
The budget crisis still could torpedo the plan. But the staff has suggested one studio space right where those news outlets used to be.
So the people making the news, at least, would be on hand, to report on themselves.
On the Media appears Wednesdays and Sundays.