Fifty-one years ago, The Los Angeles Times published the first of what came to be known as “Column One” stories, inspired by a few editors who wanted more than breaking news on the front page.

“They wanted something a little unexpected … and to hell with the time element,” said Steve Padilla, an L.A. Times editor who grew up reading — and loving — Column One.

The name came from the stories’ placement on the far left-hand column of Page One. Readers would often gesture when talking about them, Padilla said, moving their hand to the left, then up and down about eight inches to indicate the length of a story before it jumped to an inside page. Over the years, Column One became a place where Times’ writers could stretch their literary wings without worrying about a news peg or often even a nut graph. 

Yet two years ago, Column One disappeared, one of many losses The Times newsroom experienced in a period of contraction and chaos under different owners and editors.

Images from The Los Angeles Times "Column One" feature, which was resurrected this year. Column One ran for 31 years before it was suspended in the contraction of the news industry.

Images from The Los Angeles Times "Column One" feature, which was resurrected this year. Column One ran for 31 years before it was suspended in the contraction of the news industry.

As of late January, however, it’s back, part of the expansion taking place under The Times’ new owner, billionaire Patrick Soon-Shiong. Padilla is Column One’s new editor.

At first, The Times ran the revived Column One stories once a week — a lot less often than in the past, when they appeared six days a week, produced by a newsroom staff nearly three times the size of what it is today. Now Column One appears twice a week — first online on Tuesdays and Thursdays, followed by same stories in print on Wednesdays and Saturdays. 

Who revived Column One and why?  What will be the same, and what will change? And where does it fit in the chaotic and uncertain newspaper ecosystem?

We put those and other questions to Padilla, who is clearly reveling in what he calls his dream job, taking as much pride in each story as if it were his own.

His goals: First, don’t screw it up. Second, to continue the spirit of experimentation and try-anything that’s made Column One a beloved space for great stories.

 

Steve Padilla of The Los Angeles Times

Steve Padilla of The Los Angeles Times

What exactly is Column One?

 A Column One story is hard to define.  It’s kind of like the famous quote from Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart on pornography: ‘I know it when I see it.’ 

It is something that is unexpected, something that possibly moves you in a serious, emotional way but maybe it makes you laugh.  The stories might be narratives, but they’re not all narratives. The simplest definition is that it’s just a really great feature story. Obviously, we didn’t invent that. There are tons of publications out there that do really wonderful feature stories. So I won’t say that what we’re doing is unique.

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Read how The Los Angeles Times took a multi-media approach to a story about tribal history and language for a Column One project, using narrative, audio, old photos and interactive maps.

But what I think is different is really trying to let the writers speak with their own voices. We don’t need the articles to sound like me (the editor) or some institutional voice. They need to sound like Molly Hennessy-Fiske or Esmeralda Bermudez or Jim Rainey.  And one thing that Column One can do — and I think this really important being here in Los Angeles — is take advantage of this really talented bilingual, bicultural staff we have.

Often Column One stories have a strong sense of place or a strong sense of character. What’s really wild is that you can read a story and say, ‘Wow, that’s a great story… it’s an A1 story, play it on the homepage big.’ But it’s still not a Column One. That doesn’t mean it’s a bad story, it just means it’s a different kind of story.

What’s an example of a recent story that appeared on A1 in print and played big on the home page, but you wouldn’t have chosen for Column One?

We had a terrific piece recently by Bill Shaikin, a sportswriter here, about how the Dodgers tried to bring a minor league baseball team into Los Angeles. The Angels put the kibosh on the deal for reasons too complicated to get into. Bill wrote a really fascinating piece about what happened. Beautifully written, like all of Bill’s stuff.

…what I think is different is really trying to let the writers speak with their own voices.

But it didn’t fit Column One and this is hard to explain because it just felt a bit too newsy. It didn’t have more of a through-line with, let’s say, one particular character. (I can add, though, that Bill recently pitched a story that is a slam-dunk Column One. All I can say is it will involve baseball and nerds.)

But describing what doesn’t fit the mold is tough. It might be easier to talk about some of the things that we have run and show the variety there.

Before we do that, I have noticed a few of the new Column One stories have had a news hook — like the recent story about how The Game of Thrones, which was shot in Northern Ireland, has had a big impact on that country.

That was about the newsiest, or most timely one we’ve had. Another one that ran recently also had a bit of a news peg. It was about this young woman — the headline was “She got into college with extra help and extraordinary effort” — who was not part of the college-admissions cheating scandal. But one of the first stories we ran when we revived Column One in January was about a South Pasadena society matron who helped create Joshua Tree National Park.

Didn’t that story have a news peg, too, running close to the federal government shutdown that shuttered Joshua Tree and other national parks?  Or was that timing coincidental? 

It was by chance. The story ran after the government shutdown ended and mentioned the shutdown three graphs from the bottom. The story had been in the works for months and months and came about mainly because the reporter stumbled across this woman. Her name was Minerva Hamilton Hoyt and the writer, Deborah Netburn, was just fascinated by her. Deborah came to me many months ago and said, ‘I’ve got this fascinating story but there’s no hook,’ and we kicked it around and realized that, you know, there is no hook — and to hell with a hook. We don’t need a hook, we don’t need an anniversary. It’s just a great story, and is that not enough reason?  

This is the closest we come to a nut graph:

In California lore, the story of how John Muir persuaded Teddy Roosevelt to help preserve Yosemite is legendary. In 1903, Muir and Roosevelt camped in the wilderness for three days as Muir showed him Yosemite’s stunning vistas and valleys. Decades later, the matron would convince another president named Roosevelt that Joshua Tree held its own otherworldly beauty. Her story isn’t as well-known as Muir’s, but it should be. 

Does that define a Column One? A great story with no nut graph?

The nut graph, I know, is a bit controversial. Sometimes you do need something to help frame the story. And other times, just tell the story. If it’s well-written and the material is strong and it’s well told, people will understand what’s going on.

One that really got me was by Andrea Castillo, about a Mexican immigrant who’d been estranged from his family. He lived in L.A. and they were back in Mexico. He is dying of cancer and finally reaches out to the family after 10 years of silence. They thought he was dead or remarried, or whatever. That story had no nut graph, it just unfolded and it was very clear that that was a story of family and forgiveness. His family rushes up from Mexico. There he is on his deathbed in Pasadena and he looks up at them and he says ‘Perdoname.’ Forgive me.

Going back to the nut graph, I think it’s a great device. I’ve used one, you’ve used one, I’ll probably insert one in a story tomorrow. But sometimes, just tell me a tale.

What about story mix?

I’m trying to think about Column One like a meal, a mix of sweet and sour, or hot and cold. So if we run a lighthearted one on Tuesday, do we want a more serious one on Thursday? 

It’s just a great story, and is that not enough reason?

One week, we had a deeply moving, very disturbing story by Gustavo Arellano about pigs that were being brought to a slaughterhouse, and how activists would greet the truck carrying the pigs. They weren’t there to protest. They talk to the pigs while the truck is stopped at the gates. They spray water on them. They let them drink water. Their whole thing is to show some kindness to these animals that have known no kindness. And then, later that week, we had one out of Iraq about gourmands looking for truffles in the desert that was really funny. My only regret with that one is that we didn’t publish a truffle recipe.

That week was the kind I’m aiming for — we have something strong, very emotionally powerful one day and then another day is something to make you smile or say ‘Wow I didn’t know that.’

Whose idea was it to bring back Column One and why?

Norman Pearlstine, our executive editor, (since June 2018, when Soon-Shiong bought the newspaper) wanted to bring it back. The managing editor, Scott Kraft — who I think wrote more Column Ones than anyone else when he was a reporter — wanted to bring it back. When I checked, I counted about 130 Column One bylines by him, which is just amazing because if you got two a year you’d be strutting. That’s the way it was in the old days.

The two of them saw that Column One was really one of the things that helped define The Los Angeles Times. I think it helped define us for our readers. And it also defined us for ourselves.

By that I mean there were reporters who came to The L.A. Times because of Column One. The thought was that it would let a writer try to break the rules. Invent a word. Use a sentence fragment. Go wild. Don’t use a nut graph. Don’t end a story in a quote because everyone ends a story in a quote. They (Pearlstine and Kraft) recognized that this was part of our brand, part of our franchise and, for a lot of different reasons, it had withered away.

Were there requests from outside the paper to bring it back?

I don’t know. I know that Norm (Pearlstine) and Scott (Kraft) were not the only people in the building who wanted it back.  When Norm and Scott put out a memo in the winter saying, ‘OK it’s coming back,’ there were all these excited emails coming in and Twitter messages from readers but also from a lot of journalists. There was one guy, who’s now an editor, I think with NPR, he sent out a note saying, ‘OK Times alumni, post the favorite Column One that you wrote.’

A number of the pieces published so far have been written by former staff members and at least one freelancer. Is that a change? And how the stories are pitched?  Do you assign any of them?

I have assigned a few but most come to me. As far as who can write for Column One inside the paper, the answer is anybody. I have one in the works written by a copy editor about Czech cinema that’s absolutely terrific. I’ve got another one concerning clams that is being written by a web designer.

Column One was really one of the things that helped define The Los Angeles Times.

The way it works is this: The reporter or their editor will just simply pitch me an idea. When it comes to the line editing, if the line editor really wants to take the lead, I’ll let them do that. The key thing — and this saves a lot of time and effort down the road — is that I’m involved in the discussions early on about the stories. That way I know the intent. I know the angle. I know what we’re going for. So when it comes to me, I’m not going to rebuild the engine. My goal is to just polish the gem. 

In many ways, the words are the easy part. The hard part is the angle, the structure, the conception, the talking-it-out and asking, ‘Does this story have some other sort of special meaning to it? Is that meaning friendship? Is that meaning forgiveness? What is that extra ba-da-bing?’

One departure from the past is we have used some freelancers. Some of them are former Times staffers, but we had one by a stringer for the foreign staff in Spain. Her name is Meg Bernhard. Meg is not a staffer, but she has written for the paper so she’s a known quantity.    

Say a little more about that piece. You’ve run a number of pieces from faraway places like Spain and Northern Ireland with no tie to Los Angeles or Los Angeles issues. Why did you pick the Spain story?

One, it was just really unusual. This was a story about what’s called the caravan of women, which has been going on for decades, where busloads of women are taken to rural towns in Spain. In many of these places there are no women, just middle-aged farmers, guys, lonely. The women are brought out there with the hope that maybe some sparks will fly and some relationships will develop, maybe marriage. We’re told that actually has happened with the caravans. Two, it also said something about Spain. It reveals something about Spain’s demographics, and you learned in the story about how, under Franco and in subsequent governments, more emphasis was being put on developing urban areas versus the rural.

Also, it was very naturally a narrative — not that all Column Ones have to be narratives. But this one had a very natural beginning, middle and end. The beginning was the women arriving in town. And then the dinner, the dancing and the long night. I told Meg that no matter what happens, it works. If there’s romance and some people hit it off, great. If they all just sit there awkward as could be, not talking, not knowing what to do, that works, too.

That story did really well online, which was nice to see because it wasn’t off the news. 

How will you judge the success of the revived Column One?

It goes back to that earlier thing I said — ‘I know it when I see it.’ I think that’s how I’ll feel about knowing if it’s successful.

Will you pay attention to clicks?

Every day we get these reports talking about numbers and the Web czarina will give us an update on things and, yeah, I look at the screen. I guess that has to be part of it, but it can’t be all of it. We’re talking right now on a Friday and tomorrow, the next Column One will come out in print, this beautiful story about a 97-year-old swimmer, a story that’s not just about swimming but about living a good life. I have no way of knowing how many people will be touched by that story, but I guarantee you a lot of people are going to read that.

What I’m hoping is that readers are being trained – ‘Oh, Tuesday, there’s going to be that story. What do you call that thing again? You know, that story.’

Getting back to clicks, we certainly can’t set quotas. In one recent week we had two stories that show the different kind of impact stories can have. One was on Sikh truckers in the U.S., and it was getting robust web traffic and shared a lot on social media. Two days earlier, we ran an artful piece, sort of a dual profile, about a rose breeder and his latest creation. That did not do as well online as the one about Sikh truckers, but it had one of those effects that’s nearly impossible to measure: This new and especially fragrant rose was planted at the famed Huntington Library in Southern California and we’ve been told people are coming to the library just to see and smell it. Visitors recognize the breeder and insist on selfies with him.  

You’ve said that Column One has been reimagined for the digital age.  What do you mean by that?

Part of it is the visuals. Way back in the day, Column One literally ran in a single column on the front page and the art would just be on the jump. Photographers didn’t even like getting Column One assignments because they knew their art wouldn’t get really great play.

Now we really put an emphasis on the visual display and by that I’m thinking both online as well as what we do in print. We have one coming up that involves 360-degree photography. We’re always looking for the video possibilities. Some will be turned into podcasts. 

Storyboard readers are often interested in the editing process. How long does it usually take? Has anyone sailed through with just one draft? 

I can think of at least one that got through with only one. But the real key — and this makes everything a lot easier for everybody — is to have a chat ahead of time about what is this story really about, to talk about who’s the main character or characters. Is this a story about a person? Is this a story about a place? Is this a story about a thing? In the story about the caravan of women, we agreed that it had an ensemble cast.

I hope what the writers get with me is the freedom to take chances.

I often ask writers if they’ll send me their top six, eight, 10 paragraphs. I swear to them I won’t red-pencil it because that will just make them freak out and choke them. When I ask to see the top it’s just to see whether we are going down the right road. I can say, ‘This is working. I’ll get out of the way. Just keep doing it.’ In other instances, I’ll say, ‘This is a great anecdote. I don’t know if this anecdote actually works for the opening. There may be a different way we’d want to open the story but don’t kill that anecdote — it’s terrific.’ Or if it is a story that does require a nut graph, we talk about what that nut graph will say.

Is there a stamp you’d like to leave on Column One as its editor? 

First thought? The Hippocratic Oath: Do no harm.   

I hope what the writers get with me is the freedom to take chances. Maybe that’s using a sentence fragment or maybe that’s pitching a story about Vicks VapoRub. Or a story about Joshua Tree National Park that has absolutely no time element whatsoever. Maybe a story is illustrated with drawings. Maybe we have a story that has characters who are so compelling we need to rent a theater, bring those people in and have them in front of a live audience. Who knows?

I’ve read Column One since I was a kid, so part of the goal is bringing back that ba-da-bing I remember, but with a real sense of … Just tell me a story. With lots of verbs. That might be the number one requirement for writing for a Column One. Seriously, you need a lot of verbs. A lot of good verbs.

 

CORRECTION: Earlier versions of this post incorrectly stated that Column One first launched 31 years ago. It started publishing 51 years ago.

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