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Veteran reporter talks about leaving journalism after 25 years

Two longtime Latino journalists are leaving their posts at the Los Angeles Times within the span of one week.

Investigative reporter and multimedia specialist Robert J. Lopez left the Times on Friday, Sept. 5, after announcing on Facebook that he resigned to take a job as director of communications at California State University, Los Angeles.  Three days later, Hector Tobar, a book critic, announced on Facebook that he too will be leaving the Times.  Tobar, who has held key jobs as Metro columnist, national correspondent and bureau chief in Mexico City and Buenos Aires, has taken a job teaching journalism at the University of Oregon in Eugene. His fourth book is scheduled to hit the shelves next month. Tobar’s last day is September 12.

We spoke with Lopez about his decision to leave daily journalism after a career that spanned more than 25 years. Lopez offers up his view of the state of journalism today and what he really thinks of going to “the dark side.”

Robert Lopez accepting an award at the 2013 CCNMA Scholarship Banquet. (Photo by Minerva Canto)

Robert Lopez accepting an award at the 2013 CCNMA Scholarship Banquet. (Photo by Minerva Canto)

Lopez, who often made time to volunteer as a CCNMA scholarship judge throughout the years, says he got his start in 1989 with a summer program for minority journalists at UC Berkeley. He worked at the Oakland Tribune for three years before he was hired as a staff writer for City Times, then a new section for the Los Angeles Times that focused on areas that previously lacked coverage, a finding made following the 1992 riots.

After two years, Lopez moved to Metro, where he remained the rest of his career, developing expertise in investigative reporting, multimedia and breaking news. Among his many accolades, Lopez garnered the Pulitzer Prize twice as part of two different teams, one that covered the 1994 Northridge earthquake and another that exposed corruption among public officials in Bell, Calif.

While at the Times, Lopez also pressed for the release of law enforcement documents that would demystify the 1970 death of journalist Ruben Salazar. You can read about that on Lopez’s blog, LA Journo.

CCNMA: What prompted this career move? Was it the right job at the right time?

RL: Yeah, it was the right job at the right time. It’s a great opportunity. Change is good. It’s a new challenge, the pay is better, and, quite frankly, the benefits can’t be matched by any media organization and so it was the best fit for me and my family. That along with the uncertainty in the news business. I mean the LA Times will always be around and will always be the LA Times. By that, I mean it will always influence people in Los Angeles and California. The right people will always react and the staff will always do good stories, but whether or not it will be able to maintain its current staffing is very questionable. The revenue is dying, you know, print, not just the LA Times, but everywhere. I need another decade of work. I wasn’t sure I was going to get that in journalism, but this will certainly give me a better opportunity at that.

CCNMA: OK, we’ll get back to that in a little bit. One thing I wanted to know is, in looking over some of your stories that you’ve written I see that you’ve had the opportunity to work on a lot of important stories throughout your career. Is there one that you’re particularly proud of working on?

RL: I was very proud to be part of the Bell series. We won the Pulitzer Prize for Public Service. That was a highlight. We also did a big investigative piece in 2000 where we tracked down more than 300 members of the 1989 class of Belmont High School. We wanted to assess the social and economic mobility of immigrants. These students, these graduates of the class of 1989 in Belmont were pretty much immigrants and the sons of immigrants, Latinos, Southeast Asians. We did a big project. It was a special section. It was an amazing thing. We actually tracked real people ten years later. We worked with the Times poll and we developed a series of questions. We polled them, and so we had a scientific study based on real people. It came at a time when there was a real backlash against immigrants, post Prop. 187. It really showed that they had made some significant gains and it was very counterintuitive. It was real people, real stories.

CCNMA: You mentioned earlier the state of journalism. With so many journalists being laid off or leaving on their own, many if not most, are saying newspapers are dying. Do you agree or do you think newspapers are simply in the middle of massive upheaval?

RL: There will always be newspapers, but they’re not going to be like they once were. All you have to do is look at the demographics of who reads newspapers. It’s older. It’s not growing. Young kids don’t read newspapers, and so that demographic is getting older and it’s dying. So newspapers are going to have to figure out ways to collaborate and figure out ways to do things because they’re not going to have the revenue streams that they have now. Yeah, you’re just not going to stop that slide, so, to a certain degree, yeah, they are dying. Will they ever go away completely? I don’t think so, but they’re not going to be like they once were. I mean that’s clear.

CCNMA: You’ve been an active supporter of CCNMA throughout the years. What do you think that means for diversity and all the work that we’ve been doing?

RL: Oh, it’s a major blow. Look at the people who are leaving the profession. Look at the people who are getting laid off. Look at the ASNE reports that come out every year. Compare those to a decade ago. I don’t see much improvement.

CCNMA: Do you have any words of advice to young journalists today given the sort of gloom that seems to be hanging over the industry?

RL: I’ll be really honest with you. I’m not sure I could recommend for people to go into journalism. I might suggest something else. I surely did that with my daughter.

CCNMA: Any words of advice or words of wisdom to the veteranos still in the trenches?

RL: You know what? Yeah. Hopefully, they’ve innovated. Hopefully, they keep up with the trends because that’s what’s going to keep them their jobs, if they’re willing to multitask and do different things on the digital side. The more you know, and the more value, and the more you can do, the better chance you have of surviving. That’s what I did. I was an innovator. That’s what allowed me to thrive. The LA Times offered me a pay raise and to promote me to an editor to try to keep me. I mean they made a very sincere offer, a very respectable offer, but I just didn’t want to stay in journalism. I felt this was too good of an opportunity, so it’s not like I thought I was going to be laid off immediately. I just had longer-term questions. There was just nothing bad that could happen from this move and everything to gain. I can always go back into journalism.

CCNMA: It seems public service was really an important aspect for you in taking that job.

RL: It really was. I don’t begrudge anyone who goes into crisis management or the so-called “dark side” or things like that because you’ve got to do whatever you have to do to take care of your family. I totally get that. That kind of thing works out for me. This is public service. If somebody tells me, “You’re going to the dark side, I tell them, “This isn’t the dark side.” I’m out with the Latino kids, I’m out with the Asian-American kids and I’m out with African-American kids. I’m helping them go to school. I’m at a school that caters to them. If it wasn’t for this school, these kids might not have a chance to go to a university, to get a four-year degree. So, you know what? There’s nothing wrong with that at all. I’m excited.

— Interview by Minerva Canto

Editor’s note: This interview was condensed for clarity.

 

Comments(2)

  1. REPLY
    Lydia L. Ramos says

    I am sorry to see both Robert and Hector leave the front lines but they have served us well for the last two decades. They certainly leave a major void in coverage. My first thought was, “No! Who will tell our stories?” The truth is that we will tell them because the world has changed around us. We tell our own stories via social media. Of course, that doesn’t stop me from encouraging young students to pursue this rewarding/unrewarded career via multimedia as opposed to print. I still believe in the mission even if the delivery methods have changed.

    We all took up the mantle left behind by Rubén Salazar. Those of us who have pivoted careers to engage in a different angle of journalism are still carrying the mantle. Salazar’s columns talked of justice and equal opportunity. We must still help our students access the world Salazar envisioned. We do this via education.

    So, this is not so much the “dark side” as it is the side that guides others to the path of opportunity. Our brothers and sisters on the front lines of media will still guide our way by shining their lights with their words and images. We live in the world of Antonio Machado when he wrote, “Caminante, no hay camino. Se hace camino al andar.”

    Peace,
    Lydia L. Ramos
    Director of Communications and Media Relations
    Los Angeles Unified School District

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