John Corrigan, business editor for the Los Angeles Times, oversees a staff of reporters in five bureaus, including New York, Beijing, and Washington. He talks to Jaimy Lee about investigating the Toyota recall and how the staff worked with the automaker's communications team during the crisis.
What are the top stories the staff is chasing this year?
Corrigan: Last year, we basically broke the Toyota story. We took at hard look at the sudden acceleration problems, and staying with the premise that maybe it's not the floor mats, and it turned out it was also a sticky gas pedal. We also looked at how the government oversaw Toyota and where things were at, from a regulatory standpoint.
That remains a big story, although it may be winding down somewhat in intensity. We still have a couple investigative pieces in the works.
Another story for us is the California economy. One of the first things I did as business editor was create a California economy position and Alana Semuels is the reporter on that. She's gone around the state, looking at various aspects of the economy from the timber industry to the fishing industry.
Housing is a major focus for us. In California, the housing market is like Nascar in North Carolina. People take a great interest in it. They understand mortgages and housing prices. During the boom, it was the big cocktail party chatter.
Going back to the Toyota story, when did the Times first start publishing reports on the issue?
Corrigan: Toyota had planned this massive recall of floor mats on September 30 of 2009. They recalled 3.8 million vehicles. Now, that raised some questions in our minds because it seemed somewhat incredible that floor mats could cause all this trouble.
In early October of 2009, we had our first investigative story. There's always reports and complaints and so we … looked at the number of complaints of sudden acceleration that were filed before introducing these electronic throttles, compared to the three years after they introduced these electronic throttles. We saw a huge spike.
We wanted to be fair to Toyota so one of the things that I asked the reporters to do was look specifically at the fatalities and compare with other automakers.
From the first investigative report to the present, how have you worked with the communications team at Toyota?
Corrigan: It's had its challenges. Early on, we were getting not as much from Toyota as we would have liked. We wanted to have candid conversations with Toyota about these problems and how they looked into. Unfortunately, they wanted questions submitted in a written form and [to] respond in a written form. That makes it difficult to have a follow up, to have a conversation when our aim is get better understanding.
At one point, we sent a long list of questions on a story and Toyota didn't tell us but they posted it on our Web site, [saying the Los Angeles Times] didn't print this as a Q&A. The series of questions was never designed to be a Q&A.
My sense is that this is a Japanese corporation, so the real power is in Japan, there's a language barrier, and it may be that their US executives and their US communications team doesn't have the free reign to comment. At one point, back in January, Toyota wanted to come in. We had top editors at the paper there and they went through various scenarios.
Within two weeks, the company came out and said: The gas pedal can also stick and we're going to do this unprecedented stop sale to fix the problem.
Looking at the crisis for the company as a whole, what would you say was missing from their crisis communications effort?
Corrigan: The Los Angeles Times. We had actually done a lot of the work that subsequent news organizations followed. I would have liked the company to give us more time to come back to discuss these problems and have conversations, and to make some of their top executives available. Jim Lentz, the head of Toyota's North America sales division, went on Today but we could not get an interview with him. We would have welcomed a chance for some serious conversations.