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Daily News Becomes a Herald of Secession

Media: The paper takes a strong voice in Valley breakup, which could help it financially.

May 30, 2002|DAVID SHAW | TIMES STAFF WRITER

First of two parts.

Mayor James K. Hahn says it would be "a disaster of biblical proportions" and "the greatest change in urban architecture in the history of the United States." Other local political and civic leaders call it the most important question the city of Los Angeles has ever faced.

But the proposed secession of the San Fernando Valley, which would split up the nation's second-largest city, attracted relatively little attention from most of the local news media until very recently. The national news media have virtually ignored it.

Why? Secession isn't sexy or sensational. It hasn't provided great pictures or charismatic leaders. Although it's been bruited about for decades, secession has long seemed unlikely to all but its hardiest supporters. Even in the Valley, it hasn't generated the big rallies that accompanied the anti-busing and Proposition 13 movements.

"This is a divorce with accountants--dueling revenue neutrality arguments--and it's hard to cover that kind of story in eight-second sound bites," says Los Angeles County Supervisor Zev Yaroslavsky, a member of the Local Agency Formation Commission, which voted this month to put secession on the Nov. 5 ballot.

But one news organization has given secession heavy, prominent coverage for years--the Daily News, a 177,000-circulation newspaper headquartered in Woodland Hills.

The Daily News, founded as the Van Nuys Call in 1911, became the Valley News and Green Sheet in 1953 and was a free community shopper for much of its existence. It began daily publication in 1979, changed its name to the Daily News in 1981 and converted to fully paid circulation a year later. Whatever its name or format, though, its primary focus has always been the Valley, so it's not surprising that it took the Valley secession movement seriously at a time when other local media--and local political leaders--either ignored it or ridiculed it.

The media's benign neglect of secession is beginning to change, thanks to LAFCO's vote and recent polls showing strong support for secession in the Valley and throughout the city. In April, after LAFCO ruled that a Valley city would be financially viable, the New York Times put secession on its front page. National Public Radio and local television stations have invited guests to discuss secession. The Los Angeles Times--widely criticized by secession supporters and opponents alike for having been insufficiently attentive to the story for many years--organized a five-reporter team this month to cover secession full time.

But the Daily News has long been "more thorough, more complete, more attentive to the story than The Times has," says City Councilwoman Cindy Miscikowski, an outspoken opponent of secession.

The paper is widely perceived, even by its critics, as having provided the best, most aggressive and comprehensive coverage of secession. It is also seen, however, as having pursued a pro-secession agenda in its news columns as well as on its editorial pages, and as having a potential financial stake in the outcome of the secession vote.

Even when secession has been relatively quiescent, the Daily News has given it big play, and since Jan. 1, 2001, the paper has had 80 Valley secession stories on its front page; The Times has had nine--six of them in the last six weeks. Daily News secession stories have carried headlines with highly charged words: "Hahn ploy foiled," "L.A. can't gouge Valley," "Let the nasty political games begin" and "LAFCO laughs at L.A."

The Daily News has also kept up a steady drumbeat of Page 1 headlines blasting various Los Angeles city, county and school agencies: "Another LAUSD mess," "Elevators fail, council rails at City Hall," "DWP slush funds probed," "Building boondoggle" and "Abused kids ignored."

The implicit message of these attacks on City Hall and other government agencies is, "This is why we should secede," says Sherry Bebitch Jeffe, senior scholar in the School of Policy, Planning and Development at USC. "They seem to view everything through the prism of secession."

The Daily News has long been a muckraking newspaper, though, and it has exposed government inefficiency and corruption even at times when secession was not an active issue. The paper takes a quasi-tabloid approach to much of the news--secession included--and its headlines tend to be bigger and livelier than those of The Times on a wide range of subjects.

"That's part of bringing an energy and an urgency to this newspaper that I found lacking here when I arrived," says David J. Butler, editor of the Daily News since 1997.

Former Reporters Criticize Newspaper

But on secession, the paper has many critics, among them a number of former Daily News reporters and editors.

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