Dec 4, 2013
Ailing Journalism in Ailing Times
Posted on Jul 5, 2010
By T.L. Caswell
For years, I’ve begun my mornings by reading the Los Angeles Times, and the 45 minutes I spend leafing through its pages are among the most enjoyable of my day. The ritual is a tactile and mental delight. Holding a broadsheet, having a wide spectrum of news at my fingertips, being able to take in several articles with large photos at a glance, learning which band is playing at the neighborhood gin joint as well as who has toppled whom in the latest coup … all together, it leaves me grounded and ready to face whatever the coming hours might toss at me.
On the rare mornings when the Times fails to land in my driveway, I turn to the publication’s website. For me, irrespective of how good or bad the site might be, that’s a poor substitute for an ink-on-paper daily. Peering into a computer monitor while the first cup of coffee goes to the brain is a sterile exercise compared with bending, folding, clipping, tearing and otherwise abusing a physical newspaper. Just ain’t the same thing, Bubba, and many others who grew up in pre-PC days feel the same way. Ink on paper will be in demand, at least to some extent and in some format, as long as our generation breathes and consumes.
The previous paragraph might be construed as heresy coming from the likes of me, a Truthdig editor and writer. But I don’t see it that way. I’m similar to the guy who truly loves his wife and truly loves his girlfriend too. (That image will probably cost me any wives, girlfriends and champions of holy wedlock who are reading this.) The newspaper industry is the wife who has loyally stood by me through fat and skinny days; the Internet is the exciting latecomer with flash, irresistible charm and the power of instant gratification. Weighing the pros and cons of each is a subject for another day. For now, I’ll just say that I wouldn’t want to do without either. As long as I’m able, I’ll continue to wallow in print every morning and then spend much of the rest of my waking hours neck-deep in the Internet’s pleasures and work capabilities.
Before I had the good fortune to join Truthdig, I was a happy employee of newspapers that paid me well and made me part of a lively, essential community. The last of those several publications was the Los Angeles Times, the home of many warm memories for me and still the employer of dear friends.
I’ve always considered the LAT, which has won 39 Pulitzer prizes since 1942, to be among the great dailies of modern times. In the flush years it spent lavishly and employed large staffs of some of the best writers and editors that journalism offered. In those days it was dubbed “the velvet coffin” because so many reporters and editors comfortably stayed until they retired instead of seeking out new, harder, riskier challenges in journalism. Now, the good times are gone and, some will argue, the good Times is gone.
I picked up the LATExtra section. Or at least what I thought was LATExtra, a section initiated at the Times early this year in a cost-saving move. On Jan. 8, the newspaper had announced that it was “closing its printing operations in Orange County to cut costs and will begin publishing a new section devoted to late-breaking news. … In a memo to employees, Times Publisher Eddy Hartenstein said the paper would generate ‘substantial savings’ by consolidating its printing operations at one facility in downtown Los Angeles. … To accommodate earlier deadlines necessitated by the elimination of the plant, the paper will launch a section dubbed LATExtra to run late-breaking news that was previously published in individual sections. LATExtra will appear Monday through Saturday, beginning Feb. 2. …”
The LAT has good reason to want to save money or make more money. Although it has the fourth-largest circulation in the United States—behind The Wall Street Journal, USA Today and The New York Times—it is in bankruptcy. After prospering for generations under working control of the Chandler family, the newspaper, along with related companies, was sold to the Chicago-based Tribune Co. in 2000. A parade of publishers, managing editors and other top executives followed, and in 2007 the Times fell under the hand of entrepreneur Sam Zell when he purchased Tribune.
In late 2008, Tribune filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy. Severe staff cutbacks haven’t cured the ills of the LAT as the newspaper industry continues its swoon in the face of changing times, and neither have adjustments such as the introduction of the LATExtra section.
The 2010 changes that included the launching of LATExtra were not subtle. To my mind, however, substantial change was something the paper and its readership had to live with as much of the newspaper industry struggled for economic survival under an onslaught from the Internet and other forces. If the LAT could save money and thereby continue publishing, I was all for it. The alternative to finding new economic models and practices was probably to have no Times at all, or perhaps only a publication that looked more like a neighborhood throwaway than a major daily.
So, when July rolled in, I and other readers of the Times print edition had been seeing LATExtra for almost five months. The section heading of LATExtra—like the headings of Business, Sports, Calendar (arts and entertainment) and other sections—is cast in all-capital letters in a fairly heavy, inch-high serif type, which is topped by the words Los Angeles Times in the same typeface used for the Page 1 nameplate. With the exception of the main label, the LATExtra section heading is identical to several other section headings of the newspaper; it is unmistakable; and it is big.
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