Politics & Policy

Spring Street Project

Newspapers don't get any more exciting than this.

Just about a week after the Los Angeles Times announced they’ve put an investigative team to work trying to find out why they’re losing subscribers and alienating readers, the paper’s powers that be realized that the project’s title, the Manhattan Project, was in itself pretty alienating. So scratch that. Now the thing is known as the Spring Street Project.

Now, the Manhattan Project was a truly wretched title, even leaving aside the unfortunate fact that it was originally used in connection with a bomb. Why remind everyone of the famous inferiority complex the L.A. Times has about the New York Times? That’s one of the essential problems plaguing our West Coast paper in the first place. 

But it is kind of weird they’d pick Spring Street, a phrase that exists only because way back in the 1990s I felt like being a smartass. Almost no one remembers this — and I do sort of wish I’d occasionally get credit — but no one ever used “Spring Street” to refer to the L.A. Times until I began a monthly media column for the now defunct Buzz magazine in 1992.

What I liked about the phrase was its complete preposterousness. It only came about because shortly after I was assigned that column, a friend and I sat around her kitchen table trying to think of the most ridiculous nickname possible for the L.A. Times — the West Coast equivalent of the New York Times’s the “Gray Lady.” (Interesting footnote: Urban critic Joel Kotkin referred to the L.A. Times as “the Gray Lady of Spring Street” four years ago. Clever, but it never really caught on.)

Anyway, “Spring Street” really was quite ridiculous, because Spring Street isn’t even the paper’s official address (that would be First Street). It was just a reminder that our grand old monolithic media institution is proudly located on Skid Row, otherwise known as Spring Street.

To see “Spring Street” repeated over and over now in some other media critic’s column can be slightly grating, because the joke’s not exactly as fresh as it was when I began it in 1992. All jokes get stale if you hammer the reader over the head with them, and in any case, I think one or two Spring Streets per column is enough. (Also, I do sort of wish they’d changed the name of the Manhattan Project to the Manhattan Beach Project, after one of L.A.’s blander beachtown suburbs. It would have been a good local in-joke.)

I had certain Homeric stylistic rules in that old Buzz column, by the way, and I generally adhered to them pretty strictly. I almost always called the Times, on second reference (or sometimes even first) “my favorite newspaper” — “Spring Street” usually didn’t appear for a few paragraphs. Shelby Coffee III, the legendary waffler who was the top editor at the time, was always “SC3” or “Shelby” on second reference, never “Coffee.” I dubbed one high-level woman executive, Narda Zacchino, “Top Times Gal”; another, the famously bossy Carol Stogsdill, was always “Big Nurse.”

Many of the complaints about the Times’ new front-page redesign dwell on how the page looks too similar to USA Today. I stand behind no man when it comes to my distaste for USA Today – when I stay at hotels offering complimentary issues of the traveling salesman’s broadsheet, I always ring up the front desk to demand, “Take it away, take it away, take it away!” — but cynics take a different view.

A TV writer and former magazine editor I know, for instance, once told me he cancelled his L.A. Times subscription to get USA Today instead, which really seems pretty crazy. He added that he just wants the following three questions answered when he reads his morning paper: 1) How are the Dodgers doing? 2) Rain today? 3) What’s on TV?

“Those are the only three answers I want from American journalism,” he noted. “USA Today is perfect.”

Another complaint I’ve heard about my favorite paper is that it’s a mere tabloid compared to the Gray Lady. A few days after the 2003 recall election, for instance, even some insiders complained (off-record, of course) that with its investigation into the Arnold Schwarzenegger groping stories, the paper had become a dirt-digging tabloid.

But actually, I’d say L.A. could use a real tabloid, like the honestly biased New York Post, especially during free-for-all media events like the recall. Stories would run sooner, and with snappier headlines. During the recall, for instance, Times headlines often managed to be both typically dull and remarkably condescending, what with their habit of regularly referring to Schwarzenegger as “Actor” — “Actor Names Economic Team,” “Actor’s Team Sprints…,” and (my favorite) “Davis, Actor Go Head to Head.” That the stories themselves dug up dirt wasn’t the problem.

Then there’s the constant hand-wringing about mainstream media objectivity, which always strikes me as beside the point as well as impossible. A few years ago, for a story on blogging, I interviewed Washington Post associate editor and senior correspondent Robert Kaiser, co-author of a ponderous book about the media called The News About the News.

“I read things I think I should know, not other people’s opinions about what I should know,” Kaiser harrumphed, explaining why he doesn’t read blogs. But every single thing we read in the paper, including hard news, is the product of other people’s opinions about what we should know. Problems happen when those in charge believe in their own objectivity so much that they no longer know even that one simple fact.

— Catherine Seipp is a writer in California who publishes the weblog Cathy’s World. She is an NRO contributor.

Catherine SeippCatherine Seipp had been a frequent contributor to National Review Online prior to her death in 2007.

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