After working 20 years on various desks, the former business and environment writer looks back over his career.
For the last 35 years, Geoff Mohan has been committing journalism from Staten Island to Florida to Mexico City and, since the turn of the century, here in L.A. Covering such varied topics as immigration, wars in the Middle East, the environment, the state and the city, science and for the last few years, agriculture; Mohan writes artfully, cleanly and, most importantly, accurately.
Recently, he took the L.A. Times’ buyout offer which shocked many of his friends and colleagues who assumed the youthful 58-year-old would stick with the paper until the wheels fell off. But a few things that we’ll discuss in this interview led him to leave.
I first met him in 2007 when I was hired as the L.A. Times’ blog editor. Mohan had just been named the paper’s environment editor, thus he was in charge of that section’s blog, Greenspace (RIP). At first, I received warnings about the sometimes brutally frank writer/editor that he probably wouldn’t devote much time to the blog — something that seemed like tedious extra work for some — but none of that turned out to be true. He saw the light early on his own, he was easy to work with and Greenspace turned into one of the best environment blogs on the web.
This is a shortened version of a much longer conversation conducted not long after he announced he was leaving the paper. Out of habit, he often refers to the organization as “we.” And for context, this conversation took place about a week before the L.A. Times laid off 40 non-union employees and then folded three community newspapers. But even at the time of our chat, the writing was on the wall about the rough waters the paper was headed into.
But first, we started with his foray into digital-first publishing through the blog.
What did you see about blogging and online publishing that so many of your peers hadn’t yet?
I really understood and saw through this anti-propaganda that was current at the L.A. Times, at the time, about web possibilities. Once I saw through that and saw how much it really opened up what we could say and do, I was on full-bore. I was, unfortunately, supervising people who just were the epitome of old-school anti-web. It’s almost quaint to think about the attitudes then.
Margot Roosevelt, I remember, who’s now back with the paper, thank God, was very into it. She was just an absolute engine on that blog.
You don’t find that attitude in the newsroom much anymore, but you do in some. It’s just that stodgy, old-fashioned reflex against the “new medium.”
To be fair, I could understand some of their hesitation. The paper was asking reporters to do more work for no extra money. If you were accustomed to writing one to two stories per week and all of a sudden this outsider was saying your blog will die if it isn’t updated every day, I can understand the resistance. But on the other hand, that building was supposed to be home of the best writers in town — who were ironically railing against not writing. It’s not like they were being asked to do something they weren’t already great at.
Yes. But you have to remember — somebody once told me that cultures are a lot like a mountain range, they are a landscape. They take forever to build and they take forever to wear down.
So there was a culture at the L.A. Times that as you became more of a senior writer, you actually wrote less because it was expected that you were going to spend a long time taking deep dives into the subject, and you had the wires do all the rest.
So the “internet age,” if you want to call it that, or what it would have been called then, suddenly required everybody to be a wire reporter. And you’re right, if you were at the L.A. Times, you had this great talent. It shouldn’t be hard to write three true paragraphs, hit send and go from there.
We tried every possible system, including having a separate desk for breaking news stories. I think L.A. Now led the paper in that direction took everyone in that direction to where on the Business desk we were really used to just putting up a story really quickly and then figuring out where we were going to go for it next– figuring out where was the next cycle to get it online — and if there wasn’t one, then write the story that would be in the old medium on the front porch tomorrow.
Apparently, we’re bringing back the concept of the RealTime news desk, which I think it was called when Megan Garvey ran it, who is now at KPCC.
But we were damned by the fact that it’s a newspaper that has always divided itself into sections — paper sections. And then those sections become actual physical places in the room. There’s the room occupied by Business and the room occupied by Metro — and those places become stove-piped fiefdoms. And it still plagues the paper to this day.
If a story comes out of Business, and they say they like it at the morning meeting, but people from other sections are really pushing their own stories and agendas — that makes absolutely no sense in an age where the internet has mowed down all of those walls. And the paper is still organized that way, it’s still that old landscape that has not been worn down.
I remember when Dr. Dre’s son, Andre Jr., died, which is something very few people will remember — but I do because it is when I ran into those fiefdoms. At the time, there were three LAT music blogs and I saw one of the writers of one of the blogs about 50 feet from my office. I asked, “Hey, can you write a quick blurb about Dre’s son who died in the Valley?” And he’s like, sure. And writes it and it goes up — easy. But then my phone rings and it’s the Metro desk, pissed because they were like, that’s our story. And I said the only reason anyone would know who this kid is, is because of his father who is in music. So you guys cover anything that happens in L.A?
My answer to them would have been it is online now and you guys can cultivate it and write more versions of it. I don’t think you get that many hands-in-the-face gestures anymore.
Now on the other hand, where I saw the building work beautifully together in a nice dance was a year later, on the day that Michael Jackson died. He too was a musician, and it’s a death, and it happened in L.A. and all these other things, so everyone wanted to claim that Michael Jackson was their story — and they would have been right.
But I thought on that particular day everyone worked together perfectly, from Harriet Ryan, Richard Winton and Andrew Blankstein with the hard news, Geoff Boucher and Elaine Woo on the obituary. Photos, graphics, web. It was a true team effort and it was online as quickly as it could be and then it was in print perfectly.
You’re right and I’m thinking how much passed between those two deaths because that is a pretty interesting transition right there. You may have identified the time period where we finally fully committed.
But if you notice the coverage now, it’s almost gone the other direction where there’s a shotgun blast of stories onto the web and nobody thinks about the format for the print paper. It’s much more condensed and distilled. It’s almost a different genre.
Now my other fond memory of you, Mr. Mohan, was later that fall, November of 2008. Meredith Artley had moved us, her digital team, down to the third floor of the old building, onto the main newsroom just a few months prior. We were now surrounded with all the great veteran desks. Foreign on one side, Metro on the other.
She called a meeting the day of the election where she told us that she didn’t want to hear us boo or cheer when the results came it that night. She wanted us to just work and act professionally like we’d been there before. And it was good advice because a few of us, including myself, had certainly not been in a major newsroom during a presidential election, so I appreciated her instruction.
A few hours before the first results were coming in from the East Coast, one Mr. Mohan waltzes past my desk saying, “See this red tie? You know why I’m wearing it? Because last time, I wore a blue tie and some fucking asshole won.”
And sure enough, later in the night when it was said and done, I heard cheering from your part of the office. And it made me feel good that there were obviously different approaches to how one handles themselves in a newsroom and I appreciated you at that moment.
Now, Meredith is one of my all-time favorite people, and it was a dream to have her as my boss. But I would like your take on what she advised us. Do you think it’s wrong for journalists — in their own office — to show emotion after an election is called?
No, I don’t. I really don’t. I think we had the wrong conception of what constitutes objectivity, subjectivity, balance and the ethical behaviors of journalists. Now, certainly, the cheering in the newsroom has been translated to cheering on social media, and of course that you ought to be really careful about. But there is no real reason why you have to be a robot and inhuman about something as epic as electing an African American president. I mean, come on.
I don’t know if you remember this but I remember seeing lines of people the next day who were lined up for blocks around the L.A. Times to buy the paper. It was an amazing thing. And we weren’t ready for it. We weren’t expecting it.
The notion that people just wanted to hold in their hands the evidence that this actually happened. Almost as if, if they didn’t have it, someone would take it away and claim it never occurred.
It was an incredible moment and I think it was a moment worth cheering.
The job of a journalist is not to have no feelings. It’s to have an incredibly fine-tuned critical-thinking reflex to try to make sure that your beliefs are not getting in the way of facts; and that you’re constantly questioning your own biases, your own points of view and that you subject yourself to an editor and an editor above them and maybe even an ombudsman who can likewise do the exact same thing to you. We don’t need to be eunuchs.
What was great about that line of people standing to get copies of the paper — nobody bought just one, which is why they sold out so quickly. It showed me that a lot of people still believed that newspapers matter.
I remember when someone had smashed a window on the front of the building. It might have been the May Day rally. I came in laughing saying, “Man, this is the best day.” It was the first time in a long time somebody actually gave a shit enough to break our window.
People demand and expect certain things from the newspaper. I think people expect us to be the definitive first draft of history for many different events. And sometimes they want to hold that in their hands. That’s not an argument to say that old newspapers will never die and we need to retrench. It’s not to say that at all because newspapers will die. The last subscriber will die.
Which brings us to the New York Times, which you’ve criticized before so eloquently. I think like you, a lot of people gasp when the NYT says a bunch of dumb shit about L.A. because they are another paper that people look toward to be that definitive first draft of history, which is why it’s so disappointing when they seemingly parachute into L.A. and just get it wrong time after time. My point of view is Dean Baquet should hire experienced journalists — people like you — to cover L.A. as opposed to people who’ve never truly lived here. Why does the former head honcho of the L.A. Times refuse to hire locals to cover L.A.?
I think it’s a similar newspaper culture issue. They consider places like L.A. to be almost like foreign bureaus. You’re sent out there to write fairly broad-brush stories to make a place comprehensible to this imagined New York reader. And I think they haven’t transitioned to the fact that their readership is not just a New York reader; certainly not in the internet age. And the people who live in those areas will no longer tolerate it.
One of the things that I find really fascinating during the Jayson Blair fabrication was the sense that people knew that what the NYT was writing about them and their community rang false — either literally false or just wasn’t authentic. But they felt like there was no sense complaining because the NYT was mightier and they were going to have to go with this airbrushed, kind of fictionalized account of themselves in the national newspaper.
I found it amazing that people didn’t complain and felt like there was nothing they could do about it.
I think the New York Times should have realized that it’s not just an issue of fabrication, it’s an issue of how you portray a community in which you are a stranger and what liberties you take with it.
Now, the NYT has done a lot better in covering California. I will have to acknowledge that they made better hires. Their kind of straight news is a little bit better.
Their Food and Travel sections just seem to be from an entirely bygone era. I mean they do such embarrassing things. From writing about how nobody knows how to cut an avocado, to a story about the cuisine in the Salinas Valley, but they wrote it in Carmel.
They waxed poetic about the bucolic scenes in the Salinas Valley and the tours you can take to go out and watch farmworkers pick strawberries. It was almost a self-own moment of just blind elitism. It was astonishing and they still tend that way.
That’s why I’m still baffled by Dean Baquet, who should know better, who just keeps doing the same old thing. On top of that, wouldn’t you imagine that the typical New York Times subscriber is educated enough to know that this is sub-par?
Absolutely. Because a lot of New York Times subscribers live on the West Coast. I think they misunderstood the role of a national newspaper. That role is that in many, many parts of the United States, that this is the primary source of news. So when their locality happens to have its moment, the spotlight sweeps over and suddenly shines on them, they expect to be true and authentic and really reflect their point of view.
That is in direct collision with this old-fashioned sense of sending out somebody who’s educated in the New York Times way of thinking and writing; who goes out and then translates this thing back to somebody else. You’re really not telling a story from a local point of view. You’re exoticizing that locality in trying to explain it. It’s a sense of otherness that is so rooted in their approach that it leaks into the coverage and you end up with embarrassing things.
I think they have corrected that in many regards in California. I’m not sure whether they do so in L.A. But L.A. is such a vast place. There’s no city that has such a strong mythology that oftentimes is really at odds with what the place really is. We’re kind of damned by our own legend. What was it, “The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance,” when the legend becomes fact, print the legend.
It seems like for a very long time the L.A. Times was trying to be a national paper. Do you think that under this new leadership that they’ve given up on that?
I think so. I think it’s a national newspaper only in the sense of writing national stories from a left-coast point of view. I think in some ways, it’s a bit of an inversion or a bit of an imitation of what the New York Times used to do with regard to other places other than New York. I think when we write, we try to remember who it is in California, in particular Southern California, that reads us. Like, what is the thing here that they want to get out of this national news that might not be delivered in a more generic wire-type story. And I think that’s a smart thing to do.
I think that we live in a nation-state of California. We should be writing deeply and knowledgeably about that nation-state and we should be writing about other places in ways that someone who lives here would be interested. We’ve given up on being national. We don’t attract the national-level ads.
Now, one of the things I feel the L.A. Times could lead the nation in a way I don’t see the NYT or anyone one else winning at is the environment. It seems to me that on this topic, as California goes, so goes the nation — eventually. Would you agree?
Oh, absolutely. I’ve long been an advocate of trying to basically own the West on that story. I mean, you pass the 100th meridian, environment is a completely different story. It’s framed differently than anywhere else. The issues on the ground are different.
We still can get that. During the time I was the environment editor we got it. Nobody wanted to do that and that’s partly why I went back to writing, ultimately.
But we really have done a good job at rebuilding that again. And I would hope that we have the sense that everything that goes on in the West, we should be the one who breaks that story, who follows that story, who digs deeper on that story. And that is California readership, absolutely.
We just did a massive section on sea-level rise in which we were not talking at all about predictions. We talked about how much it actually was rising. How it’s eating away at properties and the way the people were mitigating it.
That’s where we need to be. We need to tell people what actually is happening on the ground and [it] doesn’t matter where that ground is. It ultimately comes back to being a California story.
After Meredith moved over to CNN.com, she was replaced by one person and then another, Jimmy Orr, who was obsessed with stats and pageviews. Has that obsession subsided over time?
Oh no, I think we’re swinging the pendulum back to that Jimmy Orr approach. For the record, I agree with you about Meredith Artley. That was a great period for us.
Everything now is about conversions. That’s the latest one that we’re measuring — and applauding — every time somebody reads a piece online and then becomes a subscriber.
Of course, you know there are just so many confounding things in that. You don’t really know why people decide to become a subscriber at one particular moment after reading a story. So many other factors could be involved.
We would have these screens in the newsroom that would show the story that’s getting the most conversions. We had, for a while, this million subscription metric, and, of course, we were never going beyond 270,000.
It was moving so slightly I remember saying to Sewell Chan, who was in charge of it at that time, “Man, why did you put up a 500K or 1 million goal? Make an interim goal of 300K so we could at least cheer by the fact that we’re crawling toward that. And then when we hit it, then consider putting up the other one. But if you put up that 1 million and we fluctuate between 266,00 and 273,000 forever, then we feel like we’re the Red Queen — the faster we go the more behinder we get.
It’s obsessive and part of the reason that kind of led me to leave. We are so occupied and bottled-up with the short staff that we have, chasing stories that we believe will get more conversions, that we don’t have the time to dedicate to bigger, more in-depth pieces that are much riskier in terms of bang for the buck.
We are well into the era where they may say, “Yeah, that’s a great story, that’s a great project, you should really work deeply on that.” Yet nobody in any section has any time to work with you because they’re working on something that’s deemed a little bit more immediate for conversions and hits.
I’m glad we don’t just count the hits. I think that was a really crude measure at the time. But I don’t think the measures that we are using now will stand the test of time either.
I’m not sure how much you read Los Angeleno, but last month, we published an editorial asking the good Dr. Patrick Soon-Shiong to tear down the paywall during this time since the vast majority of the stories behind it are COVID-19 pieces. And also, we have record unemployment. What’s your take on the paywall during the pandemic?
It has to come down. You don’t just lower the height of the wall, which is some people’s approach. I think you take the whole thing down. Come for the COVID-19 story, move laterally to some other story, fish around, read things for free and see how much you’ve actually been missing.
I think you can take that risk. The paper’s going to get its clock cleaned in terms of revenue during this period. This is a losing period for the paper. We’re not getting ads. I keep saying “we.” That shows you how much I love that place. But they’re not getting the ads, so why chase pennies when you’re hemorrhaging dollars? Why not let the pennies go and see if they turn into real subscribers?
This is no time to be ultra-orthodox and adhere to this principle that any time we give it away for free, we are just violating this cardinal rule of journalism that readers should be paying people to do journalism. Of course that’s true. That’s always true. But at a time like this, I think that it’s a good risk to take to lose a bit of money for a short period of time in hopes of convincing people that they need to come inside the wall and be part of the L.A. Times and make that your community.
That’s the overture that we should be making. You need to be in here, with us, reading all this news, discussing it with us, leaving us tips, communicating with other people on social media about what we do inside the L.A. Times community.
I don’t think Patrick Soon-Shiong sits there and says, “Well, I don’t want to lose any more money during the COVID-19 period.”
He’s much more the type of person who wants to hear about what the plan is and what your strategy is. He also is not the type who will say “yes” if you lost three reporters and you want to hire three reporters. What he wants from you is, if you have these three reporters, how would you use them and how would that serve this greater purpose for the vision we have at the Los Angeles Times?
That’s an entirely different type of leadership that is so foreign to the way the L.A. Times was run under Tribune. They were such penny-pinchers and robber barons and he’s not. He’s not going to sit there and learn calmly the hard lesson that the best way to be a millionaire in the newspaper business is to start as a billionaire. He will get restless just like everybody else.
But I think he views things more broadly. He views things across his whole properties. He views things in terms of an overall logistical take on many types of media and many types of endeavors. I don’t think he’s looking at a “Gee, we have to lose less money during the COVID-19 epidemic.”
Since you brought up Tribune, a lot of people who read this may not realize that dynamic. That when the L.A. Times was sold and ended up in the hands of Tribune Corp. it was totally devastating to the L.A. Times. As we have established, you’re an emotional man. Can you explain, when you look back, what that was like for you?
More than half or three-quarters of my career at the L.A. Times was under this cloud. It was a terrible time. You came in and you were flinching at what fresh horror was going to be delivered to you from Chicago by some narrow-minded, backward-thinking bureaucrat.
It was a terrible time. You remember. We had a web page with these two rails on the side and you couldn’t even redesign the web page. You couldn’t break these touchy formulas. We had a terrible content management system. We were invisible to web crawlers.
Everything that we said we needed to do to transition was being thwarted by Chicago. It was a horrible time.
The epitome of that is when we moved out of the Los Angeles Times Building … Most people were saying, “Wait a second, you don’t own the L.A. Times Building?” We literally had the building taken out from under us under Tribune when they divided the company into different sections after bankruptcy.
Not only that but we had to pay money to Tribune to be spun off. And then we were just sent out, bloody, into shark-infested waters. In their minds, we were just going to struggle for a while and die.
It’s a travesty. We were actually sacked and pillaged. There’s somebody out there who will write an amazing Ph.D. thesis at a journalism school, or business school, about the absolute plunder that happened to this place.
No one could be happier than me to be out from Tribune and in a shop with a reasonable owner and an actual union.
It was an awful time for the paper and I think the readers saw that. And God bless the ones that stayed with us.
One thing we did see from the outside just two years ago was when then-business editor Kimi Yoshino was —
You can say perp-walked.
Fine. Now, that was due to the editor-in-chief at the time, Lewis D’Vorkin, who did it personally. Now excuse me for my ignorance, but was there a dotted line between him and Chicago?
Yeah, he was the hatchet man. He was there to do the final transitions at the L.A. Times where we were going to become, essentially, a shop full of freelancers who would have to justify their existence by hits, conversions and whatnot. He was there to make the final step in a pretty diabolical transformation. It would have gutted the L.A. Times. It would have been nothing more than an aggregator and an occasional innovator.
I’m glad we got rid of that guy. I don’t know what pact he signed with the devil to say that he was an editor-in-chief of a major newspaper and just come in here to destroy that paper.
So let’s review that meeting though. Was it that Lewis had a meeting and some quotes from it got leaked out? And he suspected that Kimi had done something improper, and that’s why he walked her out of the building and suspended her?
Yeah, exactly. That whole accusation showed just to the extent to which they were inward-looking and paranoid about finding who was leaking. You know full well if you have a meeting in front of 300 journalists — no chance in hell is that not going to be everywhere within seconds.
And it blew up in their faces, look at where Kimi is now.
And deservedly so. She’s a terrific editor. And I think she fits in much more with your view of where the L.A. Times should be — and with my view as well.
I know this isn’t fair to ask you to pick your favorite children. But is there a story you wrote at the L.A. Times that you’re super proud of?
I would have to point to my work from Iraq. I wrote a wholefistful of fairly short takes simply because I was often writing them under conditions when we were under threat. I had to write them quickly, shut down and take shelter.
I think there was a type of writing and a type of urgency in those that I’m still relatively proud of. I felt I wrote just enough, it was just sharp enough and I didn’t need to say much more.
The one I think I should give my paycheck back for, to this day, is when they sent me out to float around on McCovey Cove during the World Series. Imagine, you’re told to go out there, rent a kayak and float around with a bunch of really funny, rabid fans. I worked for four innings and they said, “We can’t take any more from you because it’s past deadline.”
I spent the rest of the time on somebody’s yacht eating meatballs and drinking scotch. It was one of those moments where I said, “This is better than a real job. Journalism is so much better than a real job.”
Speaking of journalism, who was the most famous person you got to interview because you were working at the L.A. Times? Who was fun to talk with?
Eric Kandel. He’s a Nobel Prize winner that almost nobody knows who found the actual neurological basis for memory. He literally chronicled how synapses formed to create memory.
He was arriving at UCLA for a talk. I was a science writer. UCLA asked if I would like some time with him. I said, of course, yes. Then I immediately went to Google to learn everything I could about the guy.
We got in a room and he was explaining what he did. And at one point, he just moved over from the other side of the table, took my laptop and side-by-side with me, sort of taught me all these Nobel-level stuff about neuroscience. And I remember leaving there saying, this is priceless. I’m just Geoff Mohan from Staten Island, I’m no one here, but because I’m from the L.A. Times and I can understand you, you’re willing to take the chance and teach me neuroscience.
I’d say those are the bookends. McCovey Cove, drunken fans and Nobel laureate. Come on. What kind of job was going to give you that range?
OK, so what’s next for you? Because you’re too young to really retire.
I literally only have half-baked ideas. I think I was so mentally and physically exhausted and beat down that I need some time to make decisions. It’s like what they say after a death or a traumatic event: Don’t make big decisions. Give yourself some time. So that’s what I’m going to do.
I’m going to unplug, be a little less present on social media, a little less present as a “news person” and try to see what other identities emerge.
In many ways, it could be awful to realize I no longer have that identity as a journalist. It was so central to everything I did. But in many ways, maybe that was blocking other identities. I’d like to give those a chance to emerge.
Final question, because I see you teaching somewhere one day. And those people would be very lucky to have you. What would you say to young people who are considering journalism today?
I would say learn data journalism. Dive absolutely deeply into the deep end of the pool of web-based reporting. Get as technical as you need to get because that’s where the new storytelling is.
It was the most innovative part of the Los Angeles Times: the data, graphics and visual storytelling.