Los Angeles Times: Resting on journalism’s charred laurels
WASHINGTON, January 20, 2018.: The conspirators called it “the machine,” leaving the item in the narrow alley separating the Los Angeles Times newspaper offices from its printing facility. It was a satchel containing sixteen sticks of dynamite wired to a timer.
Shortly after 1 a.m. on October 1, 1910, an explosion tore off one side of the Los Angeles Times building, rupturing nearby natural gas lines, triggering a fire.
The majority of the 21 men who died that morning, perished in the flames and not the blast. They died at the hands of labor organizer J.B. McNamara, who believed the bomb would convince the inflexible L.A. Times owner Harrison Gray Otis (“Employers of labor should be ready to meet and vanquish those who make unreasonable and arrogant demands upon them”) to reconsider allowing his workforce to unionize.
The newspaper’s managing editor called the union activists “enemies of industrial freedom.”
Bomber McNamara and his co-conspirator brother were arrested the following year and represented at trial by renowned criminal defense attorney Clarence Darrow. They were convicted but, thanks to Darrow’s jury bribes, spared the death penalty.
Needless to say, the L.A. Times was never a friendly venue for union organizers while the descendants of Harrison Gray Otis owned the newspaper.
But in 2007, those descendants, the Chandler family, watching the L.A. Times and Tribune Company stock prices fall, sold the media conglomerate to real estate magnate Sam Zell.
He told business channel CNBC’s Maria Bartiromo,
“I don’t come in believing in current wisdom, and, therefore, I can look at the challenge as a completely empty canvas. That puts me in a unique position.”
As the Chicago Tribune later noted, Zell made the newspaper’s financial troubles “significantly worse by the unusual $8.2 billion deal put together… by Mr. Zell, which took the company private and nearly tripled its debt load, driving the company deeper into debt than any other newspaper publisher.”
Facing interest payments of more than $900 million, Zell was forced to file for Chapter 11 bankruptcy… one year after taking control of the print giants.
The L.A. Times has since become the property of parent company Tronc Inc., who saw its $404.5 million revenue in 2016 drop to $369.8 million in 2017.
As if to add an exclamation point to its waning strength, Times newsroom employees recently voted 248 to 44 and joined the NewsGuild-Communication Workers of America; a second explosion to the one union thugs John and James McNamara set off 107 years ago.
An irony no doubt lost on the oblivious editors and reporters whose shiny newsroom rests on the charred remains of their journalistic forerunners.
The author worked at the Los Angeles Times from 1979 to 1992.