Media Circus: goodbye, sc3

The departure of wishy-washy editor Shelby Coffey III completes a top-down housecleaning at the Los Angeles Times.

Published October 17, 1997 7:00PM (EDT)

Well, we won't have Shelby Coffey III to kick around anymore and I, for one, am feeling -- can it be? -- a sense of loss. Journalists are a sentimental, even maudlin bunch. We can't resist the chance for a lachrymose, clichi-filled Hallmark Hall of Fame Moment, even when we ought to know better. An idiotic refrain has been playing pointlessly through my head since the Los Angeles Times editor-in-chief resigned Oct. 9: "Looking through my tears, I miss the Shelby years ..."

OK, thanks for the slap -- I needed that. The departure of the infamously wishy-washy SC3, as he's known in Times inter-office e-mail, came a month after take-no-prisoners Times Mirror CEO Mark Willes assumed even more control of Hollywood's hometown paper of record by also becoming publisher. Richard Schlosberg III, who had been publisher, resigned Sept. 12 after months of butting heads with Willes, the hardheaded former cereal company executive who arrived at Times Mirror just over two years ago.

SC3 was replaced by his No. 2, veteran foreign correspondent and Pulitzer Prize winner Michael Parks -- who hadn't even been his boss's first (or, as a matter of fact, second) choice for managing editor. The fact that Shelby was overruled in his choice of managing editor last year was the beginning of the final stretch in a long goodbye.

Shelby had dearly wanted to be the first editor-in-chief of a major metropolitan newspaper to appoint a woman as second-in-command. His two leading choices were: top Times gal Narda Zacchino, then the associate editor overseeing Life & Style, Calendar and the other "soft" sections; and senior editor Carol "Big Nurse" Stogsdill, at the time in charge of all California coverage.

But Zacchino and Stogsdill were widely loathed. Zacchino was prone to intrusive micromanagement, which generally took the form of endless diddling with copy at the last minute. "No one on the West Side would say that," she once memorably announced, removing a quote critical of the homeless from a Sunday Magazine story. Zacchino has been demoted to mere Times front gal -- a liaison between Spring Street and the community. Stogsdill was a meddlesome bully. Now she's on her way out. Reportedly, she began badmouthing Parks during the "m.e. derby," as it was called in-house.

New editor-in-chief Parks is his former boss's opposite in every aspect. A former Moscow and Jerusalem bureau chief, Parks has a Pulitzer for his South Africa coverage, was one of the first American journalists allowed into China, etc., etc. He is well-liked and widely admired, although the managerial skills he's displayed since ascending to the managing editor spot last winter have been fairly disastrous.

"Ever since (former managing editor George) Cotliar retired in December, it's been a mess; they tear up the front page every single night!" a Times insider exclaimed to me in frustration last month. "George was the default mechanism. Parks just says, 'Shelby, whatever you want.' And Shelby doesn't know what he wants."

Observers question Parks' knowledge of Los Angeles -- and indeed of the mechanics of running a newspaper -- since he's been out of the country for almost three decades. The plus side of this, though, is that he is not yet thoroughly steeped in the oily marinade of Spring Street office politics. He is also a very old-school white guy, which during the Shelby years was a career-buster for pretty much everyone but Shelby. Parks has a penchant for military-ese (he schedules meetings for 1400 hours) and a buzz-cut and tie right out of Jack Webb in "Dragnet."

SC3, in contrast, is the quintessential guilty white male: insular, kindhearted, cluelessly patronizing, endlessly infuriating. And so, during his eight-year tenure, was the Los Angeles Times.

Willes said he tried to persuade Shelby to stay, and that's probably true. He had expected his editor-in-chief to quit eventually, of course. Just not this soon, when the CEO was in the middle of rearranging the business side of the paper -- which was even more somnambulant (if that's possible) than the editorial side.

During a series of meetings Willes held with editors last month after the Schlosberg resignation, someone asked what the CEO-cum-publisher's new relationship with his editor-in-chief would be. "I can't honestly tell you," Willes replied, "it's evolving." Shelby was visibly upset by that answer.

Like a draining battery, he'd been leaking power for some time. This became especially apparent with the arrival just over two years ago of Willes, a former General Mills vice chairman (thus his "Cereal Killer" and "Captain Crunch" monikers, after his belt-tightening at Times Mirror and closure of the money-hemorrhaging New York Newsday) and onetime head of the Federal Reserve Bank in Minneapolis. Shocking as these things always are, last week's exit was really just the final, gentle closing of a door. Because actually, the lights of the Shelby era had been dimmed for months and most of the furniture already carted away.

Not to beat a dead equine-American, for instance, but ... what ever happened to the Diversity Committee? Shelby made Spring Street a national laughing-stock four years ago with the Diversity Committee's notorious Style Guidelines. (Sample Guidelines: gal, as in top Times gal: "offensive reference to a woman"; hillbilly: "offensive reference to a rural person"; handicap: "offensive ..."; ghetto: "offensive ..."; inner city: "offensive ..." And so on.)

At the height of the Shelby era, you couldn't swing a dead cat on Spring Street without hitting some touchy member of the Diversity Committee, who would then most likely announce that such a metaphor was offensive to feline-Americans and stomp off to organize a petition. But like so many landmarks of the Shelby years, the Diversity Committee seems to have gone with the wind.

"In his defense," a Times insider said of SC3 last week, "all an editor had to do during the pre-Willes years was keep the seat warm and not screw up. And he did that; that was his job. I think on a kind of gut level, he knew that his time was over, that he's not an editor for a growth period."

Patrician Southern gentleman that he is (his grandfather was a U.S. senator from Tennessee), Shelby never could seem to lower himself to deal with the urgent hustle of the newspaper world, or the prosaic needs of its workers. Years ago, when he was Style editor at the Washington Post -- where he spent 17 years -- underlings called him "Bwana."

One ex-staffer whom the Times wanted very much to retain remains bemused by his endgame sessions on Spring Street. "You have these long meetings with Shelby," he told me, "and he asks what you want to stay, and you tell him, and then he doesn't give it to you."

But you really felt the full force of SC3's superiority when he didn't want you to stay. Former Times reporter Mark Stein, who left Spring Street for Bloomberg Business News in London, flew down from the San Francisco office a few years ago to ask about the possibility of being assigned to an overseas bureau. Shelby, who was 45 minutes late, announced he had only five minutes for the meeting and got down to business.

"Where did you go to school, Mark?" SC3 asked.

"Chico State."

Deep sigh. "Well," Shelby replied at last, "perhaps you should consider taking a few courses at Berkeley."

As a longtime reader of Shelby's "Top of the Times" in-house missives to his staff, that struck me as an odd comment from someone whose prose generally has all the style of a high-school book report aspiring to be a corporate brochure. Spewing out the Times' precious, "Hee-Haw"-ish prose, which grew steadily worse during the Shelby years (so help me, they actually used the word "yummies" in an editorial the other day), does not exactly require a top university education.

Last week, CNBC pointed a camera in my direction and asked if the Willes-led changes, including Shelby's departure, didn't mean the Times would now be overly friendly to advertisers. My response, which was only half-facetious: "What advertisers?"

The back story to all that's happened on Spring Street these past few years has been a tale of disappearing local department stores. The Broadway for years was the Times' single biggest advertiser, and there was a certain amount of pussy-footing around Carter Hawley Hale. But now, of course, the Broadway, Bullock's, I. Magnin and Bullocks Wilshire are no more, while Robinson's and the May Company have shrunk into the single entity of Robinson's-May.

Press critic A.J. Liebling remarked years ago that the quantity of news we receive is dependent on the whims of downtown dry goods merchants. Around here, those whims now carry less weight.

Shelby has always been known for his personal cozyness with the rich and powerful, and I'm bemused that people seem to be forgetting this. Last week is the only time I know that he's managed to look like a hero. "It looks to me that Shelby's resigning for the right reasons," said a former Times writer who for years was very angry at his boss, who thoroughly boondoggled him. "He doesn't want to walk around with a jacket that says, 'The Los Angeles Times: Sponsored by Cheerios.'"

By Catherine Seipp

Catherine Seipp is a regular contributor to Salon.

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