12/20/2010 06:21 pm ET Updated May 25, 2011

New LA Times Column Watchdogs Local Goverment

A linchpin at the Los Angeles Times editorial pages has stepped out from behind the scenes to put his vast knowledge of local government to work.

He's Jim Newton, the paper's most recent editorial page editor. He says his new column will give Southern California's elected and appointed officials some tough scrutiny.

The column launched last Tuesday with a tough look at LA City Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa's regime.

"Jim's very good opening column shows the need for such efforts," said Bill Boyarsky, who wrote a similar column for the Times Metro section for years.

"He combines hard reporting, analysis and historical context plus tough judgment."

Newton has been at the Times since 1989, where he covered, among other things, the Los Angeles Police Department, as well as the mayor's office as a reporter.

He later served as the paper's california government and politics editor and became the city-county bureau chief.

He seems well-poised to shake things up a bit with his column.

I had a chance to ask few questions by email of the obviously very busy Newton, who will remain an editor-at-large for the editorial pages. Here are my questions and his answers:

Who had the idea for the column? Is it very different than the way it it was first envisioned?

JN: The idea for the column grew out of conversations between me, Nick Goldberg (editor of the editorial pages), Sue Horton (op-ed editor) and David Lauter (California editor). We discussed the focus and also where it might best run in the paper. We settled on this approach.

Why do Southern Californians need a column like yours?

JN: The value for readers of the Times, I hope, will be in providing sustained, deeply reported coverage of local government. The Times does tons of good reporting of those areas, but I do think I bring a depth of experience and history that will enrich the news coverage.

Do you consider yourself a government watchdog, in the tradition of public service journalism "speaking truth to power"? How is this different than being the editorial page editor?

JN: Yes, I consider my role to watch the government and hold officials accountable. That mission is consistent with that of the editor of the editorial pages, but this turns more heavily on my writing. I will continue to serve as a member of the editorial board, and will thus be writing and editing editorials as well.

Do you think this column would be different had the blogosphere never happened?

JN: I think there would be a place for this column without the blogosphere, but local blogs are supplementing mainstream coverage and breaking news in ways that make it more interesting and complicated to cover. I think there's a place in all that for someone of experience and insight. I hope I can provide that.

You talked to a panel of influential locals to prepare for this column. Were you surprised at what they defined as important issues?

JN: I didn't exactly talk to a "panel." I sought out people of influence who know a lot about the city, county and schools and asked what they thought were pressing issues. I was surprised at some. The city's neighborhood council system, for instance, has matured greatly since I last covered it, and is active in examining development, traffic and other issues. And I was unsurprised at others. The quality of Los Angeles schools continues to preoccupy many people here, as it should.

What do you as a native Californian and long-time journalist writing about the state see as its biggest challenges?

JN: The state's short-term problem is, of course, the state of its economy and the pressure that is placing on budgets. Longer-term, structural questions regarding taxes, the relationship between the economy and environmental protection and the state of schools all are vital questions for California to confront. Locally, all those are relevant, as are issues of health care, public safety and the like.

Many are extremely bleak about California's short- to mid-term future. How about you?

JN: I think it's going to get worse for California before it gets better. But I do think it will get better.

Who would you like most to read your column? How will you know whether you've succeeded in reaching these people?

JN: I'd like the column to be read by anyone who takes Los Angeles government seriously, who's interested in politics and policy, who's fascinated and perhaps perplexed by the personalities and issues of this region. I hope it will be lively and provocative enough to hold the interest of those who do not consider themselves insiders or experts.

Which writers have most influenced the column and you?

The columnist who has meant the most to me, both as a guide for this work and as an example for me personally, was James Reston of the New York Times. Reston gave me my first job -- as his clerk -- for which I'm forever grateful.

He also established a conversational but serious link with his readers. He respected them, and they returned his regard. He also was one of the kindest and most overwhelmingly decent men I have ever known. I would never presume to be like him, but I've always tried my best to approach him.

Jim Newton's new column appears every Tuesday on the Times' Op-Ed page. When asked, Newton was mum about the topic of this week's column.