The 'Times' of His Life
Richard Riordan may or may not launch his newspaper, but he's sure having a blast playing critic
by RJ Smith
THE MEDIA MOGUL SETTLES INTO the comfortable sofa in the library of his Brentwood home. On the coffee table is a Michael Connelly mystery and a book of chess problems. "I love chess," Dick Riordan enthuses, an abstracted look on his face.
In the last year Riordan has survived colon cancer and an embarrassing defeat in the Republican primary for governor. He's 72; it might be time to fluff up the cushions and mull over one chess gambit or another, maybe take another bicycle tour of Europe. Instead, the former businessman turned mayor is paving the way for yet one more career move, that of newspaper owner. He's talking to advertisers and has assembled a team of longtime associates and new acquaintances to help him strategize. He says he's perhaps weeks away from selecting a publisher, and soon to follow that up with an editor.
His new interest in communications reaches beyond the print world. Rumors have surfaced that he's interested in purchasing Adelphia, the bankrupt cable company (he denies it); other gossip has him trying to buy the bankrupt German group Kirsch Media. He recently wrote an op-ed piece for The New York Times and is working on a screenplay. "Steven said he'd return my call," the former mayor of Los Angeles jokes. "That was six years ago."
Some novices get into publishing out of a sense of civic activism; others enter thinking they can make money. Riordan doesn't talk about either. He's interested in the stomach-twisting business of running a newspaper because he thinks the Los Angeles Times has done such a shabby job of it.
"The Times has gotten away with murder by being essentially antiLos Angeles," he says, "printing the bad things but not really the good things about Los Angeles. They get away with murder by distorting the news. I don't know anybody—liberal or conservative—who has been involved with something that's been reported in the Times who's been happy with the reporting. The Times is what I call latte liberal, flaky liberal—their spin on things is toward the liberal side."
The mayor who went by the name Riordan was hardly an incendiary device, careful in his infrequent public appearances and constantly careful with his words. But the newspaperman named Riordan has different DNA. This guy's got his bicycle shorts in a bunch.
"I want to be tough, to get rid of political correctness, and be brutally honest from a conservative or liberal side, from all sides," he says.
How has the Times been politically correct?
Let him count the ways. "I think the reporting on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict was very anti-Israel. I don't accuse them of being anti-Semitic, but they might as well have been, because they treated Israel as Goliath and the Palestinians as David. The reporter at the Times wrote them up like they were your next-door fraternity brothers.
"They seem to like making things look 'racist white against the poor black person.'" It's a familiar complaint, the indignant white guy who can't understand why everybody else won't be as color-blind as he is. "In Inglewood, for example, there were several articles in a row that specifically said the officer was white and the victim was black. Yet every expert, black, white, or other, said this was not an example of racism."
He's on a jag. Ask Riordan about his own plans and he leaps into more criticism of the Times.
The business section: "The business section seems to have no awareness of who the businesspeople are in Los Angeles."
Op-ed: Tear it down.
Calendar: "Who the hell cares about some Ibsen play in La Jolla?"
Finally, there's a lull in the conversation.
So, what are you going to call your newspaper?
He leans forward, clearly he's been waiting for the question. "The Big Dick," Riordan shoots back with a schoolboy grin. "And we're going to have a contest to design the logo."
Who is this guy? This guy's the bomb. A call-it-as-he-sees-it guy, smart, goofy in a likable way. This is exactly the man we never saw in his eight years as mayor, not the remote backroomer who will be remembered for leisurely trips in the French countryside as much as for anything else. Bring on the new Dick and stand clear. He is that most dangerous thing: a press critic with millions to burn.
RIORDAN BEGAN SPEAKING ABOUT HIS newspaper ambitions this spring, and in the time since, his plans have changed markedly. First he was going to publish five days a week, and now he says he'll print weekly. First he was going to blanket the city. Now he plans to target the Westside, giving free subscriptions to the wealthiest 100,000 households and charging everybody else at vending boxes. His friends might love that; the riffraff may suggest it's the journalistic equivalent of welfare for the rich.
Newspaper chains have contacted him about joint operation, and ad agencies have called. Another millionaire mayor, New York City's Michael Bloomberg—who got wealthy from his financial information service long before taking office this year—has offered help in setting up a financial section. As a business Riordan's newspaper—he also jokes that he'll call it The Los Angeles Tribune, to tweak the Tribune Companyowned Times—is getting his full attention. Not as clear is how much he's considering what goes between the ads.
Riordan speaks hesitantly about editorial details. He'll rely on a small cluster of editors and a large pool of freelancers—especially movie screenwriters looking to pick up a little change on the side. (There's a novel way to improve journalistic ethics: Hire from Hollywood.) He'll write a column himself and run a lot of syndicated writers while offering an array of local and nonlocal news.
Among the group Riordan confers with are New Times columnist Jill Stewart, former Democratic party pollster Pat Caddell, Downtown News publisher Sue Laris, and former Herald Examiner editor Jim Bellows. He's said to have offered former Times writer and editor Bill Boyarsky a job (Boyarsky declined), and to have offered former Times managing editor John Lindsay the editor's slot (Riordan says he talks to Lindsay but hasn't made up his mind).
Meanwhile, journale="Verdana, Arial, Helvetica, sans-serif" size=2>"I think we can get by with small losses," he explains, "two or three milliongoing down the first year."
Daily newspapers are struggling, yet these are fertile times for some journalists. Blogs—stands for "Web logs"—are flourishing; they are Web sites with short hit-and-run commentary and abundant links to other blogs, articles, and sites. Blogs are a pure expression of the Internet: unmediated opinion and information passing from hand to hand. Blogs promise a reckless, independent use of the First Amendment, journalism without fact checking, editors, advertisers—nothing but writers and readers communicating directly. In theory they offer across-the-spectrum opinion, electronic libertarianism.
One local specimen, LA Examiner, has clearly captured Riordan's eyeballs. LA Examiner offers a wealth of information without generating much itself. What it does generate is a mountain of opinion, mostly press criticism. The Examiner links to a smattering of local newspaper stories, making it a great grab-and-read for journalists and insiders perusing Southern California news. But what has gotten it far more attention is its skewering of the Times. From reading the site entries and the e-mail from its readers, you can summarize LA Examiner's opinion of the Times this way: The dum-dums blew it again! Much like Riordan's review, a dated tone creeps into the Examiner's criticisms—they sound like Civil War reenactors suiting up to restage creaky battles over "political correctness" and "liberal bias." The tone is acerbic, patronizing, witty, whiny. (Full disclosure: They criticized me for being soft on Times columnist Steve Lopez.)
The site is stewarded by Matt Welch and Ken Layne, a pair of young college dropouts and veterans of media start-ups who talk like insiders, who with their access to the Internet are insiders. Blogs scramble the divide between reader and writer, professional and amateur. This drives a lot of print journalists crazy. But while bloggers go heavy on the anti-print rants, there's a passion there, too. Thanks to the Internet, the outsiders are in. The Web makes every journalist equivalent to every other; it makes everyone a media critic, media critics who don't even need Riordan's millions to get their message out.
Riordan's had numerous meetings with Welch and Layne, and one report said he'd interviewed Australian print journalist and blogger Tim Blair to be his managing editor. Either Riordan looks at LA Examiner and thinks he's seeing a newspaper—in which case he's egregiously misreading the Web—or he's found some young confederates to hate the Times with.
The LA Examiner guys have their own newspaper they want to start up, a five-day-a-week tabloid they've been planning longer than Riordan's been plotting his. "Whoever gets to the money first will come up with a paper," says Welch. Short of the mayor's kind of money, though, he's happy to team up with Riordan. LA Examiner for a time was lining up subscriptions for its collaboration with Riordan but recently pulled the ad. Although Welch loves the idea of working for a "crazy celebrity editor," he acknowledges his potential new boss doesn't have "complete assurance about where he's going with this. It's definitely not a 100 percent deal. I wouldn't make a large bet with you that this will happen. But I'd make a small bet."
You're on. I think Riordan's savoring the attention of so many journalists yanking their notebooks out while he lambastes the Times. The Internet shows you don't need much more than attitude to get an audience, but attitude and the mere threat he might pull out his wallet does it for Riordan. He's a rebel without a blog, and he's got everybody spreading his quotes around—on TV, in print, and of course on LA Examiner. Even the Times has given him space to vent. Why spend millions when you're getting your message out for free? The former mayor is a friend of former chess champion Garry Kasparov and is himself reputed to be a solid player who has made a particular study of opening moves. This seems like one more brilliant opening, with nowhere to go but down.
TOP OF PAGE