Times Reaching Out to Readers Angry About Election Coverage

By DARRELL SATZMAN
Staff Reporter

Los Angeles Times Publisher John Puerner does not anticipate any negative long-term effects from the controversy resulting from its series of pre-election articles in which more than dozen women alleged that Gov.-elect Arnold Schwarzenegger had groped them.

Since publication of the first story five days before the Oct. 7 recall election, more than 1,000 subscribers have cancelled subscriptions, Puerner said. He declined to provide exact numbers but did say last week that the pace of cancellations had slowed to a trickle.

"It's not a material amount," Puerner said. "The cancellations represent less than 1 percent of our current subscriber base."

The Times has daily paid circulation of more than 945,000 and its Sunday circulation tops 1.3 million, up a bit from last year, according to the Audit Bureau of Circulations.

Acknowledging that a handful of advertisers canceled scheduled ads after the stories appeared, Puerner said the financial impact of those cancellations was minor.

The publisher continued the paper's defense of its coverage of Schwarzenegger, even as it continues to be pilloried on talk radio for running what some have called "a smear campaign" to discredit Schwarzenegger.

"A number of weeks before the stories ran (Times Editor) John Carroll came to me and told me what they were working on. I knew the stories could be controversial," Puerner said, dismissing criticism that the paper unfairly targeted Schwarzenegger. "Some of the other candidates had long political records that had been reported on over time. There was virtually no reporting about (Schwarzenegger) in the way in which major political candidates are covered."

Puerner said the Times has kept the names and phone numbers of subscribers who cited the Schwarzenegger stories as their reason for dropping the newspaper and said there would be an effort to get them back. "We're going to be doing that over time," he said. "In fact, some of those subscribers are starting to come back."

That doesn't come as a surprise to John Morton, president of Morton Research, a newspaper consulting firm.

"The easiest way to express discontent is to call up and say, 'Cancel my subscription,'" Morton said. "A newspaper attracts readership because of its quality and its reputation."

Catherine Mathis, spokeswoman for The New York Times, said that paper lost just a handful of subscribers when it came to light earlier this year that reporter Jayson Blair had fabricated quotes in dozens of stories he wrote for the paper.

"Obviously, for newspapers advertising is the more important consideration. We found that advertisers were tremendously supportive. We had no cancellations or postponements," Mathis said. "We have very strong brand identity and advertisers felt (the Blair episode) wasn't indicative of our reporting."

Morton pointed out that newspapers with circulations of close to 1 million typically have heavy churn anyway, controversy or no. "They probably lost more (subscribers) than usual," he said. "But in the overall scheme of things it is not a big amount."

The Schwarzenegger stories represent the biggest editorial controversy at the Times since Tribune Co. acquired the newspaper in 2000. A year earlier, the paper was embarrassed by revelations that it agreed to share advertising with the Staples Center in an issue of the Sunday magazine entirely devoted to the new arena.

Unlike that instance, however, the Schwarzenegger stories could be beneficial to the paper in the long run.

"I think it enhanced the reputation of the paper to produce a hard-hitting story that others weren't taking seriously," said Bryce Nelson, a journalism professor at the Annenberg School for Communication at USC. "It's never a popular thing to point out defects in a popular political figure."

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