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ON THE MEDIA

A new spin on inside stories

Those who once were merely subjects of news coverage increasingly will be looking for ways to write the story themselves.

September 30, 2009|James Rainey

What do the Los Angeles Kings, Los Angeles County Supervisor Zev Yaroslavsky and California trial lawyers have in common?

All think the news media no longer cover the universe -- or their corner of it -- adequately and all have hired journalists of their own.

Sorry I couldn't provide a snappier punch line. But the latest journalism innovation -- in a season of unending innovation -- is no joke: Those who once were merely subjects of news coverage increasingly will be looking for ways to write the story themselves.

Most folks in the traditional media who hear about this latest chapter in journalism's ongoing revolution will have questions and a few reservations. Steeped in healthy skepticism, they will wonder how far these new "inside editions" will go. Can newsmakers become provocative and righteous news breakers?

I'm ready to temporarily suspend disbelief. Some of the new endeavors have not yet launched. Others started only recently. Let's see what they come up with before passing judgment.

It seems only right, though, that the initiatives fueled by taxpayer dollars will get particular scrutiny. Reporters inside the government really will be (or should be) working for all of us.

Yaroslavsky's deputy for special projects, Joel Sappell, seems prepared for the extra attention and also determined that the 3rd District supervisor's revamped website, to launch in October, will "go beyond flackery."

The intention is to transcend ribbon-cutting photos and news releases about Supervisor Zev to create stories on little-known county programs and issues.

One piece in the works will focus on a program that attempts to reduce the spread of sexually transmitted diseases. Another will explore the fate of thousands of convicted drug users, and their communities, if the state completes a massive cutback of narcotics diversion programs.

"If the stories are interesting and tell people something they didn't know, something that is significant, then we have done our job," said Sappell, previously an editor at the Los Angeles Times.

Sappell said he and his boss have no intention of supplanting traditional news outlets or newly emerging Web reports. "It can be something different, without everybody being sort of threatened by it," said the former Times city editor.

Major League Baseball led the way among self-reporters. Before Opening Day 2001, each of 30 big league teams had hired a beat reporter to file game stories, features and analysis.

Baseball savants tell me they can count on MLB.com for the basics but not the spicier critiques that fill newspapers, talk radio and cable TV. Don't expect MLB.com to be dogging the owner to lower ticket prices or demanding a steroid-pickled star be traded.

House-sponsored baseball coverage has been valuable, though, in maintaining fan interest in a multibillion-dollar entertainment business.

A similar motivation is at work for the Kings, who, citing a decline in mainstream media coverage of hockey, this week hired a reporter away from the Los Angeles Daily News.

A Kings spokesman told the New York Times that the reporter, Rich Hammond, will have autonomy in both news and commentary.

Hammond acknowledged that he will have to prove to a skeptical audience that he is truly free to cover the travails of the Kings, who have made a habit of missing the playoffs.

The stakes would be considerably higher in the turf being staked out by another former L.A. Timesman, Dan Morain, who heads a new reporting enterprise for the Consumer Attorneys of California.

Among the topics that the onetime investigative reporter and his hirelings might tackle: tobacco, medical negligence, product safety and political donations by corporations.

Morain has pledged on the group's website to avoid PR hucksterism and to pursue issues "without rhetoric and bombast."

The veteran newsman gained a reputation over many years, reporting on the corrupting influence of campaign money, for taking on pols of both parties.

A pair of journalists hired by Yaroslavsky -- onetime L.A. Times Calendar Editor Lennie LaGuire and veteran Newsweek correspondent Andy Murr -- also have the chops to get at the truth.

But won't it be hard to deliver unvarnished facts while serving in the seat of power?

Murr, who like LaGuire is scheduled to make $36,000 a year for the half-time job, said it's critical that the stories don't read like press releases dressed up as journalism.

"There is an opportunity to do something a little experimental, informing people in the county and not just about one elected official," Murr said.

Murr, the former Los Angeles bureau chief for Newsweek who took a downsizing buyout, said he views the county assignment as an extension of other public service work he has taken on in recent months: helping start a charter school for underprivileged kids and writing a grant proposal for a DNA "innocence" project.

Although he said he's admired Yaroslavsky and tends to agree with his politics, Murr said readers should be clear: "We are not doing public relations."

Earlier this week, I wrote about several nonprofit organizations rushing into the news game in California.

Now here come the private and governmental players.

Everybody's in the pool for now. Readers will decide who deserves to sink, or remain in the swim.

--

On the Media also runs on Friday on A2.

james.rainey@latimes.com

Twitter: @latimesrainey

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