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Chicago Agonistes: The Plight of the L.A. Times

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Posted on Nov 28, 2005

By Steve Wasserman

Why continue to read newspapers? After all, newspapers are losing circulation at precipitous rates, giving rise to fears that they may not survive long enough to write their own obituaries. Cutbacks, buyouts and layoffs are widespread, affecting many of America’s most prestigious newspapers, including The New York Times, The Boston Globe, the Philadelphia Inquirer, the Chicago Tribune, the San Francisco Chronicle and the Los Angeles Times, where it was recently announced that the paper faced an 8% reduction in its editorial staff. Morale plummets, anxiety mounts.

The growing maturity of the Internet and the explosion of the blogosphere suggest that newspapers’ demise is inexorable. A perfect storm of technological advances appears to make newspapers fit for the study less of schools of journalism than departments of anthropology. The virtual world is incontestably more nimble and democratic. It permits a chorus of diverse voices that newspapers can’t hope to replicate, if only for reasons of space. Why remain loyal to a medium that every day seems increasingly anachronistic? 

Less heralded amid the boosterism of the current moment is the way the World Wide Web offers a portal through which new readers can access the old media more efficiently than ever before. No longer is geography fate. Millions now read reportage online that previously had to land with a dull thud on one’s driveway. The killing paradox is that technology has gained for newspapers millions of new readers without finding a way of significantly boosting advertising revenue. Internet devotees trumpet its virtues while refusing to concede that old-fashioned newspapers supply the reporting without which the blogosphere would simply be a virtual balloon filled entirely with hot air. The Internet exploits the hard-won authority of traditional news-gathering institutions without offering such perceived dinosaurs a way of avoiding extinction. This is the unacknowledged debt the future owes to a past it strives to vanquish.

Nor is it generally recognized that our best newspapers have been spawning grounds for reporters and editors who know that shoe leather is a prerequisite for discovering how we live the way we do. It is called reporting. It is time-consuming and often expensive. It is hard work. It prizes fact over rumor. The Internet, by contrast, is a medium that considers one’s first thought as one’s best thought. It costs nothing. Reflection is rare, wisdom scarce. In an age of epistemological relativism, opinion, no matter how far-fetched, is thought by many to have the same weight as fact. It trades in rumor, exalts snarkiness, prefers rage to reflection. Yet a handful of America’s best newspapers have built over the decades deserved reputations and gained the loyalty of readers by remaining hostage not to partisan purposes but rather to that elusive virtue called truth. It was always, of course, a humanly fraught enterprise, filled with pitfalls of ideological and advertising pressures. But the best newspapers sought to resist such dangers, seeking against the odds to navigate a path that would earn them the respect of readers even while incurring the occasional wrath of advertisers, not to mention the displeasure of their owners.

Today, most newspapers are no longer the province of the private barons who owned the press to further their dynastic and civic ambitions. (It would be a mistake, of course, to romanticize the past—one has only to remember the corruptions and self-serving use of the media by such moguls as William Randolph Hearst and Harrison Gray Otis, whose newspapers were sterling examples of what was rightly disparaged as “yellow journalism.”)  Still, the warp-speed transformation of America’s newspapers over the last 25 years or so has arguably resulted in a profession that seems increasingly enfeebled, less able than ever before to fulfill its inherent mandate of reporting the news without fear or favor.

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How this happened is well told in a shelf full of books, including Ben Bagdikian’s prescient “The Media Monopoly” and Jim Squires’ indispensable memoir, “Read All About It: The Corporate Takeover of America’s Newspapers.”  Squires, the former editor of the Chicago Tribune, knew what he was talking about. He’d fought a tough but ultimately losing battle with his newspaper’s corporate bosses. Since his book’s publication more than 10 years ago, things have only gotten worse. Today, most newspapers are owned by publicly traded corporations whose commitment to short-term shareholders and investors trumps whatever conceit they may privately embrace with regard to the practice of journalism. Distant owners treat their newspapers much like 19th-century imperialists bent on extracting the last shekel out of faraway colonies whose natural resources were to be plundered and then abandoned. Conglomeration intensifies, greed grows, journalism withers.

The Los Angeles Times offers an instructive example. It finds itself beset by three separate if overlapping crises: The first is the general crisis of confidence confronted by the entire profession as it grapples with technological change that dramatically alters the way news is delivered; the second is the crisis occasioned by the consequences of the paper’s acquisition by the Chicago-based Tribune Co., and the third is the crisis of identity caused by the changing demographics and political economy of its circulation area in Southern California, a region of some 18 million people that stretches from San Diego in the south to Santa Barbara in the north. These crises have combined to produce near-desperate measures on the part of the paper’s owners and managers. The resulting spectacle is exemplary.

The paper’s management recently announced it would eliminate 8% of its editorial staff (some 85 positions), through a combination of buyouts and layoffs. This comes on the heels of years of steady downsizing. To be fair, not all of it is to be laid at the door of Tribune Co., the paper’s current owner, which bought Times Mirror Co. for $8 billion five and a half years ago. The problems that plague the paper are well known. Ken Auletta in a recent report in The New Yorker offered a detailed and revealing look at how the paper’s editors are seeking to meet its corporate owners’ expectations. Tribune Co. insists that the paper deliver annual operating profit margins nearer 25% or 26% than its more customary return of around 15% or 16%. (Last year, according to Auletta, the paper reaped an operating profit margin of about 20%, a figure that failed to satisfy the Chicago moneymen.) The paper’s top managers and editors are determined to do so or die trying. But before they expire, the paper they seek to resuscitate may well be reduced to a husk of its former self. The prospect is not pretty.

Tribune Co. faces a nearly insurmountable challenge. According to some observers, Tribune overpaid the Chandler family—which holds three seats on Tribune’s 12-member board of directors. (It should be noted that the three representatives of the Chandler family who occupy these seats are precisely those whom one former longtime insider at the paper characterizes as “the Bircherite faction of the family, the folks who thought Otis [Chandler, publisher from 1960 to 1980 and credited with the paper’s widely admired and prosperous professionalization] was a pinko.” Tribune recently was ordered to pay the IRS back taxes and interest totaling nearly a billion dollars stemming from a transaction inherited from the discredited regime of Mark Willes and Kathryn Downing, the former heads, respectively, of Times Mirror Co. and the Los Angeles Times, its flagship newspaper. The hoped-for benefits of cobbling together a de facto national newspaper chain—the Orlando Sentinel, Newsday, the Hartford Courant, the Chicago Tribune and the Los Angeles Times—in order to attract advertising in America’s most promising (and populated) markets, has proved elusive. The presumed advantages to be afforded by cross-ownership of a local television station (KTLA-TV) and a major metropolitan newspaper haven’t occurred. Indeed, whether the Federal Communications Commission will permit Tribune to consolidate its ownership of the region’s largest newspaper and a significant broadcast medium is in doubt. A decision is expected in 2006.

Meanwhile, Tribune’s stock price continues to tumble. Some Wall Street insiders speculate that the price the various parts of the company might fetch, were they to be sold separately, is a sum considerably greater than the worth of the company if left intact. The company appears to be so beleaguered that Dennis FitzSimons, Tribune’s CEO, is clinging by his fingernails to his own job, according to a former top editor of the Los Angeles Times. Strategies of synergy—that fool’s gold of modern corporate hocus-pocus—have come a cropper.

There is also an unquantifiable but important cultural factor: There is a strong feeling within the newsroom at the Los Angeles Times that its Chicago masters regard Los Angeles as an alien planet whose denizens are made of different DNA. Chicago’s faint and unenthusiastic recognition of the 13 Pulitzers the paper was awarded during the five years that John Carroll was its editor is a wound that refuses to heal. It’s almost as if Mars had conquered Jupiter but somehow, much to the Martians’ bafflement, Jupiter still exercises a larger gravitational pull and looms still brighter in the heavens above. More than one high official of the paper has remarked on the odd but palpable admixture of resentment and envy the paper’s Midwestern owners evince when they are in the presence of their West Coast underlings.

As if this weren’t enough, the Los Angeles Times has for nearly a quarter-century faced a set of constraining factors unique to its circulation area that has bedeviled all previous management teams at the paper. These problems antedate Tribune’s acquisition in the spring of 2000, chief among them the shifting demographic and economic makeup of the region. Despite the vast reams of internal marketing surveys the paper has routinely commissioned over the years, the Times today seems no longer to know who its readers are, much less how to talk to them. Today the paper is ironically an almost perfect reflection of the city it purports to cover: Neither really knows what it wants to be when it grows up. Under Otis Chandler, the paper yearned to compete with The Washington Post and The New York Times. The expansion of its reportorial staff, the opening of dozens of foreign bureaus, the careful attention to accuracy and the purging of the paper’s traditional biased tone raised its stature and catapulted it to the front ranks of America’s newspapers. The paper’s ascendance coincided with the postwar boom in Southern California’s own aspirations. For years, the dream of endless prosperity was synonymous with the California dream. And in the Los Angeles Times many readers could see a faithful reflection of their sunniest hopes about the radiant future.

The collapse of the Cold War and the military-industrial complex that had fueled so much of Southern California’s economy, providing jobs and patronage; the bitter ethnic divisions that exploded into view during the riots over the Rodney King affair; the rise of an over-oxygenated Hollywood elite, many of whose members seemed curiously aloof from the city in which they had made their considerable fortunes; together with the growing political clout of the swelling Latino population and the staggering numbers of Asians that flooded into the region, were among the more salient factors that combined to hollow out the core readership of white Midwesterners that had been the backbone of the Los Angeles Times. Ever since, the paper has been undergoing a slow-motion nervous breakdown, its cultural hegemony broken, its political clout diminished, and the men in charge left bewildered and bereft. The industry they serve is challenged by technologies that render increasingly obsolete and archaic the very means by which news is delivered and advertisers satisfied. And the class for which the paper had traditionally served as tribune is gone, having been replaced by a clique of investors and lobbyists whose interests the paper seems only fitfully interested in aggressively investigating, as Tom Hayden’s incisive letter to the Times of Nov. 27 makes clear. To be sure, if the talented and ambitious Dean Baquet, the paper’s current editor, is permitted to have his way that may well change, provided of course that he has enough strength of character and staff left to do a proper job. His minders, however, are outsiders with no stake in the city’s civic future. There is no consensus within the paper as to who it represents or what, if anything, it should stand for. It has no voice; it lacks gravitas.

Efforts to staunch the hemorrhage of readers grow steadily desperate. The paper’s managers oscillate between embracing a strategy that recognizes that the local went global years ago and a strategy that makes a fetish of the local. Today’s editors, under pressure from Tribune to arrive at an allegedly closer emotional bond with the paper’s prospective readers, have raised the notion of the local to a near-dogma. Whatever one thought, for example, of Michael Kinsley’s efforts to reinvent the editorial and opinion pages of the Times, the reasons advanced for his ouster were provincial in character. He was accused of an unseemly devotion to national and international questions and was said to be insufficiently attentive to local and regional issues. It is an irony, of course, that the paper’s current managers are almost all outsiders whose experience of and familiarity with Los Angeles prior to being hired by the paper was, to say the least, nearly nonexistent.

The paper’s managers have nonetheless declared, in so many words, their intention of making the paper the best possible local paper they can. By doing so, they hope to reverse the circulation slide and to make good on the mantra that has been routinely recited by nearly all previous management teams and which is embodied in the paper’s recent but now-abandoned radio advertising jingle: “Find yourself in the Times.” The notion here is that the paper ought to be a mirror that reflects readers’ interests without which putative subscribers will turn elsewhere for the “emotional bond” that is said by the paper’s internal marketing gurus to be the adhesive that binds readers to the paper.

(A better metaphor might have been to liken the newspaper to a telescope. Seen through one end, the device makes visible the invisible, much as discovering a new planet, heretofore unseen by the naked eye, transforms the sense of our place in the cosmos. Or, alternatively, when looked through the other end, the telescope makes the familiar appear strange by throwing the ubiquitous into sharp and distant relief. Together, the double perspectives afforded by looking through both ends turn the viewer inside out and compels him to see the world with fresh eyes. This is arguably a better, more accurate metaphor for what journalism does at its best.)

How the notion of newspaper-as-mirror can be successfully applied at the Los Angeles Times at a moment when longtime editorial writers like Sergio Muoz, former editor of the Spanish-language La Opinion and a man widely admired among a broad swath of a Latino community whose members form about a quarter of the paper’s readership, are permitted to depart, is puzzling. Others who are leaving include Bill Stall, who was awarded a Pulitzer Prize for editorial writing in 2004; Kevin Thomas, whose deep knowledge of and passion for movies and championing of independent films and near-Stakhanovite capacity for writing daily stories is legendary, and, according to a report on laobserved.com, George Skelton, whose knowledge of Sacramento politics is unrivaled. They will be missed. So too will longtime editors and writers Claudia Luther and Myrna Oliver, who virtually invented the writing of serious obituaries at the paper. This accomplishment was something of a heresy at a newspaper that for years seemed reluctant even to note the dead, so firmly was the idea of Los Angeles as an Arcadia for the forever young so well established. The departure of Larry Stammer, the paper’s religion correspondent, is also regrettable. These gifted men and women are among the paper’s stalwarts who have stoically contributed over the decades to the paper’s considerable reputation.

Moreover, their exodus occurs in the context of Tribune’s earlier shutdown of the paper’s numerous zoned editions, which were designed precisely to appeal to local constituencies, not to mention the wholesale gutting of the Orange County edition that saw the loss of scores of jobs.

It is hard to avoid the conclusion that the paper, in a frenetic effort to reinvent itself under the suffocating pressure of its Chicago overseers, is jettisoning a patrimony of journalistic excellence painstakingly built up over the years at great cost. It is of course easier to dismantle than it is to build. A former editor of the paper recently said that it would be nave to think that current publisher Jeff Johnson is calling the shots on his own. The suggestion, if true, reported on former Times reporter Kevin Roderick’s reliable website, LAObserved.com, that Johnson killed an editorial decrying GM’s slashing of 30,000 jobs, is ominous. Particularly as it comes in the wake of former editor John Carroll’s refusal to buckle under GM’s pressure when it pulled its advertising from the Los Angeles Times in response to a critical column written by Dan Neil, the paper’s Pulitzer Prize-winning automobile critic.

None of this should surprise. After all, the men who control the paper’s fiscal destiny have never shown any particular commitment to Los Angeles, regarding it with all the unbridled avariciousness and ill-concealed contempt that Cortez displayed toward Montezuma and his benighted Aztecs. As a former high official of the paper recently told me, “You’ve no idea how fast these folks are strip-mining the place. They’ve already carted away millions of dollars. Their efforts to attract advertising and grow the business have come to nothing. They’re Midwestern white men obsessed with only two things: the Chicago Cubs and accounting. They care nothing for journalism. They are Philistines.”

When told of this judgment, Jim Squires said, “Philistines is perfect characterization for that crowd, only the Philistines as a group were smarter. You cannot imagine how intellectually inferior three of the last four chairmen of Tribune Co. were.” He compared them to George Bush, remarking that they were “complete frauds as leaders and executives.”  “Chicago,” he said, “is a street-smart town. Cops, crooks, restaurateurs, developers, writers—they are bold and wily. The business executives, on the other hand, are weak and moronic.”

Given the recent floundering at the Los Angeles Times, the question has to be asked: Are there any adults left minding the store?

Steve Wasserman worked for a total of 14 years at the Los Angeles Times under four different editors-in-chief in two principal capacities—as deputy editor for five years at the Op-Ed page and the paper’s Sunday Opinion section, and, most recently, for nine years as editor of the Los Angeles Times Book Review. He is currently managing director of the New York office of Kneerim & Williams at Fish & Richardson, a literary agency.


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By pastech, May 19, 2010 at 11:32 am Link to this comment

By the same principle, any nation that professes to live under constitutional governance must be able to ensure that its intelligence professionals observe relevant laws, including the international treaties that ban torture and abuse of prisoners. There is nothing in the U.S. Constitution, even the
president’s wartime authority, that permits the chief executive and his minions to assume dictatorial power. So the attorney general must investigate abuses committed in their name.
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By teayza31, May 16, 2010 at 1:13 pm Link to this comment

As a devoted reader of the LA Times for many years, I have been heartbroken by what I have seen occuring.  The loss of Robert Scheer was just about the last straw.  The one consolation is that I now have at least an extra hour to surf the internet and find sites like Truthdig and HuffingtonPost.  I can now speedread the editorial pages of the Times.  Technology News

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By warrengreer, October 7, 2009 at 11:08 pm Link to this comment

I will be the last subscriber to the L.A. Times, but at a time during the Vietnam fracas when even our L.A. Times didn’t give heart to opponents of the arrogant disaster we were perpetrating, my wife and a
Texan friend and I, at a meeting of the farmworkers’ organizing committee, were introduced to Mike Hannon
and Art Kunkin.  Mike, an L.A. cop, would eventually
run for L.A. County sheriff, lose, and, it is rumored, become a Zen Buddhist monk.  Art, on the other hand, soon thereafter founded the L.A. Free Press, intending to fill the vacuum left by the Times in its coverage of the age.  Once again, there is need for a sane voice, this time which can pull us out of the bush-cheney-rove muck, in our age of
internet technology. 
    Who can fill the bill, showing us a viable sucessor?

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By furniture, October 7, 2009 at 12:14 pm Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

I had very little idea of how extensive has been the attack on the newspaper’s system. It seems that corporate profiteering is a pervasive cancer killing our democratic processes in many areas.

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By rick lee, September 5, 2009 at 8:31 pm Link to this comment

I just bumped into this article but what you says makes even more sense now. Newspapers are as relevant today as a CD player. That is not to say news itself is worthless but it is high time we explore different models and structure for reporting news in the 21st century.
wool area rugs

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By kathy sullivan, November 8, 2006 at 1:42 pm Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

Great article.  Having once upon a time lived on the West Side in L.A., I’m not surprised about the L.A. Times implosion.  The Times even then preferred to play it safe; did not rock the boat in it’s reporting;  Many a time I wondered why certain topics weren’t covered by the Times for example the Iran/Contra drugs for weapons expose.  The L.A. Weekly covered that and had much more courage then (now, it too, sadly has gone the way of life-style and porn advertising).  The fact that the Chicago bunch were able to buy the Times and then to expect a profit margin of more than 20% is moronic.  Unfortunately, our newspapers today have largely been acting as propaganda machines for the right wing corporate bosses and until they again go back to serious journalism, this will be the result.  I hope that someone local who appreciates journalism will buy the Times and put all you great writers back to work and leave you all to report the truth in peace.

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By Aline Thompson, December 14, 2005 at 10:14 am Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

I cancelled my sub to the LATimes after my husband died. I get letters offering cheap subs.
I get letters offering 3 day subs for $1 a week.
I got a young boy at the door trying to get me to subscribe.

I wasn’t much interested and now that Bob Scheer is being let go I am not at all interested.

The only thing I miss is the Sunday comic section but I can read that at my son’s house. I’m trying to get them to cancel as well.

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By Das, December 11, 2005 at 12:04 am Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

To Jeff Gershoff,

I agree totally Jeff, as you put it “Marx-Engles” holds out everything of promise the world so desires and needs. Cuba is a near perfect society - why else would the monster USA prevent its citizens from emmigrating there? North Korea is a harmonious, progressive society about which we are allowed to know little by our competition-inducing capitalist overlords. China is a brilliant success in which Mao-uniformed youths wave giant red flags in street parades and afterwards repair to misty clifftops and, accompanied by the haunting echos of ancient recorders, ponder national unity. But careful Jeff, these collective perfections were attained in the teeth of millions of resistant, individualistic enemies, millions that had to be eliminated, millions that were eliminated. Roll up your sleeves Jeff - there’s lots to be done!

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By Mark Marco, December 10, 2005 at 9:53 am Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

#65 David- Right On, brother!
#66 Jeff- The LA Times was a joke somewhere around the mid 90’s, let it go….Like Socialism became a joke, somewhere between starving countries and the university endorsement of despot wackos….put down the kool aid, it’s gonna be OK…..

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By hank mccann, December 9, 2005 at 7:51 pm Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

I recently cancelled my subscription to the LAT without regret. I have found the newly installed Jeff Johnson’s oversite of the editorial pages simply idiotic. Moreover, his move to fire Robert Scheer and replacing him with the intellectual midget—-Jonah Goldberg—-the most stupid decision by any reasonable person. I can only conclude that Jeff Johnson, himself, is a liar and intellectual midget.
The bottom line is that the LAT has become a stenographer for the propaganda of the Bush White House. And, History will record that the Bush White House is the most lying, criminal and inept Administration in the history of this country. The LAT is becoming an enabler—-and complicit—-in its’ criminality. I refuse to support liars and criminals of this sort. It was easy to drop the LAT after 30 years as it has been for many of my friends and neighbors.

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By Trudy, December 9, 2005 at 10:50 am Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

I agree with Mr. Wasserman and other Times critics on most points. I greatly lament the loss of Robert Scheer and the mediocrity of the current Times columnist lineup (couldn’t they at least move the wonderful Al Martinez to op-ed?). Also, as a journalist who loves good journalism, I am deeply troubled by the loss of newsroom jobs. However, as a Midwesterner transplanted to L.A., I have to ask, why must “Midwestern” be a synonym for “stupid,” “unsophisticated,” and similar pejoratives? I’m sure the Tribune management has lots of problems, and managing from a distance is always difficult, but please, simply being from the Midwest doesn’t make a person a rube or a Babbitt (any more than being from L.A. makes one a vapid celebrity wannabe). I know plenty of brilliant people who are from the Midwest or still live there! So please, let’s have as little tolerance for regional stereotypes has we have for racial, religious, and other ones.

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By Greg Timpany, December 9, 2005 at 12:27 am Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

I stopped by the LAT today to catch up with some friends in Circulation (and to shamelessly pitch my consulting services). The feeling in the building is unlike any I have ever experienced, So many people are gone. Seeing the nameplates of so many people that have left was quite eerie. They could easily begin renting out office space.

Greg

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By Lowell Gomes, December 8, 2005 at 4:48 pm Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

Phew, this thread is long!  Fortunately, I’m a New Yorker subscriber and undeterred by lengthy readings.

I, too, called the LAT to cancel my subscription to protest the dropping of Robert Scheer and the Outdoors weekly section.  I was then asked to stay on at $2.00 per week, less than half of what I was paying in the Scheer era.  I think that reasonably reflects the loss in value of the Times after all the staff predations by the Tribune goons. After all, there are still some good writers left, and now I can read the Times much faster than I could when it had more cogent content. Meanwhile, I get Robert Scheer’s witticisms delivered via the internet, and I have discovered Truthdig.com.  Perhaps my conscience will impel me to send the money saved on my Times subscription to Truthdig, eh?

There are few businesses that have profit margins of over 20%, so I find it startling that corporate heads would so cavalierly axe the reporting base upon which the paper’s circulation supposedly is based.  Or do they believe I buy it for the advertisements?  Well, there will be more room for them now.

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By Jeff Gershoff, December 8, 2005 at 12:12 pm Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

I suppose that “David” is trying to be sarcastic and or hip by his post.  Be that as it may, there is something in it that is very distasteful to me.  For some time it has been seen as either anachronistic or pase or naive to think of oneself or refer to oneself as a “Marxist.”  Be this as it may, only a moron would choose to use the term as a derision when conversing with an educated readership.  Just because history has not yet ended and US and Worldwide capitol interests so dominate the landscape, does not for one second render invalid any of Marx-Engles.  I say again that only a moron, and I take that term seriously and don’t use it often, would offer a post like the one above.  Fortunately, I would imagine that Bob Scheer, far from taking offense at Davids sad commentary, wished him better in the future because his education has obviously been lacking thus far.

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By Pres Blyler, December 7, 2005 at 9:00 am Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

Like a few (?) others, I cancelled my LAT subscription (after 30 years), upon the discharge of Robert Scheer.  I happened on Truthdig.com after reading Scheer’s most recent article on his website.  Steve Wasserman’s story of what has been happening at the Times, along with all the letters, is fascinating and extremely grim.  I continue my subscription to the New York Times, but it isn’t satisfactory for local news.  The LA Weekly is also heading for what appears to be an imminent demise.  So much for reasonable local, national, and world newspaper coverage!  Very sad.

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By Kate, December 6, 2005 at 1:27 pm Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

I just can’t bring myself to cancel my subscription.  The Scheerer firing was, I thought, my last straw.  The editorial pages now are unbelievably (yawn) mediocre.  Jonah Goldberg?  Mr. Doughy Pantload himself?  I can’t even finish one of his columns, he’s so bad. Even the letters seem dull these days.  But I can’t shake the feeling that MY cancellation will be the last straw for the Times, and I really don’t want the dinosaurs to expire just yet.

My father was an associate editor of the editorial pages during the late ‘70’s and 80’s, until the “drive-by reorganization” after the Herald folded.  During his and Tony Day’s tenure, the editorial pages were lively and thought-provoking.  Dad and I had many conversations about the corporatization of newspapers, and, naif that he was, he was certain that his beloved profession would never allow robber barons to destroy the biz.  He is spinning now, I just know it.

Kate

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By Warren R. Greer, December 5, 2005 at 7:24 pm Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

I had the same reaction on reading the comments by “Frank McCourt”, but after the second reading, it became obvious this was meant as an example of the celebrated Irish sense of humor!  It was a piece of excellent IRONY!  I, too, am sure the Chicago boys will spend whatever it takes to make the L.A. Times into a wiener of a paper! 
Warren

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By Antoine (LAT escapee), December 5, 2005 at 3:34 pm Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

It’s a shame that former employees such as Andrew have to go work somewhere else to feel appreciated. I myself escaped the Tribune cell-bars not long ago. I felt that there were no opportunities for educated minorities with MBAs or other degrees. Diversity and expertise is something that Tribune does not cultivate. Instead, Los Angeles Times keeps holding on to archaic business models that are out-of-touch with existing demographics and the emerging technologies.

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By Carolyn Patricia Scott (a more recent Times escape, December 5, 2005 at 12:36 pm Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

Oh my, things are getting worse!

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By mike finnerty, December 4, 2005 at 2:34 pm Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

“We men of the North had a word to say and we said it then in our own damn way.”
                  Seamus Heaney

  The Nobel Prize winner wrote that to me on a front page of one of his books of poetry over lunch at Harvard in 1986.
  Is this truly the writer Frank McCourt who is reading this website and commenting that the Tribune’s personnel moves are brilliant? Have the good reviews gone to his head?
  We, in Los Angeles, know that the LA Times is already a winner but is being savaged and picked apart by Tribune executive’s sole attention to the quarterly bottom line. They are destroying what was already built—substantial community programs and award-winning journalism. Newspapers are all about readers and serving the public and not about shareholders.
  We, of the West have a lot to say, and we’ll say it now in our own damn way.
—M Finnerty

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By James Richard Brett, December 4, 2005 at 10:43 am Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

The LAT was my refuge from the blathering muck of televised network news in LA after Vietnam, the burning-babies—film at eleven, three-hour car chases, and a half-teaspoon of foreign news a week.  The Times filled the vacuum and the Times was reasonably honest and balanced.  That Times is no more.

Newspapers have a unique economy.  What they do, if they are fulfilling their promise, costs real money.  And, it is easy for them to short-change the product for higher profit margins and, until comparisons among papers are made, the public cannot tell. When they are all doing it we have a real problem.

These are trying times, Americans disagree on fundamental issues as stridently as the run-up to the Civil War.  Oligarchs, who thought they could control America’s factions by spinning the news in ways that dissipate violence and hatred have been proved wrong.  Whole sub-cultures and whole generations no longer give a damn what newspapers are saying.  Lots of people are looking to alternative sources for news.  Some in their churchs, many on the internet.  Newspapers, like the ones I delivered and read are all but dead. 

We must help the good journalists who are trying the new media—the blogs and other electronic formats.  At the same time we must insist on high standards and not let big money drive out good journalism.

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By Das, December 4, 2005 at 1:52 am Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

Hey Eric Cunningham,

Steve Wasserman is just trying to illustrate the kinds of writing errors that he will be tackling at his new editor job:

The flabby, shopworn phrase:
Morale plummets
anxiety mounts.
growing maturity
A perfect storm of, etc
at precipitous rates
trumpet its virtues
The killing paradox
hard-won authority
deserved reputations
sterling examples
a husk of its former self.
a frenetic effort

Unnecessary “it” clauses:
“Nor is it generally recognized that…”

The forked metaphor (spawning ground & shoe leather)

The convoluted metaphor (the two telescope ends resulting in - what does it mean to “turn the reader inside out?”)

The dangling modifier:
“…colonies whose natural resources were to be plundered and then abandoned.”

The weak sour grapes thesis: rich guys are stupid

The tiresome “our gang” pot-shot at Bush, etc…

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By Martin Bernheimer (early Times escapee), December 3, 2005 at 4:27 pm Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

Wow.

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By Greg Timpany, December 3, 2005 at 10:28 am Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

Along with Mr. Morales I was one of those who sat in the marketing meetings with the Trib’s golden boy Johnny O. It amazes me how the Tribune transplants constantly forget one of marketing’s key mantra’s…Know Your Audience!

Are we local, are we regional, are we national or international? The LAT’s current marketing efforts sound a bit like the rants of someone with multiple personalities.

Greg
.(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address)

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By Daniel Fyffe, December 2, 2005 at 9:19 pm Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

E-Cunningham: Apply for the position of opinion page editor at L.A. TImes posthaste. Your prospects are outstanding as understood by your commentary yet if you blink, a 19 year old blogger/ cub-fan will have taken the position,
Hmm…did I use too many precious words!?
Thanks Steve for a nuanced, insightful piece of “old school”/ genuine information sharing.
The caring L.A. may rid morning mourning in finding great contributors re-spire.
Daniel.

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By Frank McCourt, December 2, 2005 at 6:16 pm Link to this comment
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The Tribune Co. has done an excellent job since taking over the L.A. Times.  We’ll soon see that all the personnel moves they’ve made were brilliant.  I’m sure they’ll spend whatever it takes to build a winner of a paper! 

Frank M.

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By Sister Souljah, December 2, 2005 at 4:26 pm Link to this comment
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Great article, Steve. I agree that the virtual world, the Internet, is more democratic.  I also agree that it pays less attention to research, documentation, and detail.  In fact, footnoting and acknowledgment and separation of fact from opinion has almost disappeared.

On the other hand, I never saw the newspapers, even the few great ones to which you alluded, as being hostages to the truth.  I never saw them as reporting the news “without fear or favor.”  They have always been biased in my opinion.  They have always eliminated or ignored or denied the voices of people and events which people like myself and living in my communities have considered incredibly important, relevant and in need of explanation or analysis.  (And explanation and analysis by some of the parties either involved, connected or concerned.)

And, yes, the shifting demographics in California are going to cause a whole lot of dilemmas!  As are the shifting demographics all over the country.  And, yes, in most instances there will be a handful of outsiders brought in to “solve” the problems.  They will be disconnected and money-driven.  They will be whipped and manipulated and controlled by the owners.

When all is said and done, the Philistines will be, if they are not already, the majority.  People like Bob Scheer and Steve Wasserman—and probably even me—will be left to figure out how to thrive when capitulation is the word, meal, lesson and requirement of the day.

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By edith, December 2, 2005 at 12:50 pm Link to this comment
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Great piece, obviously stimulating, also depressing. It raises too many sickening journalism issues for me to pick one to post about, so I’ll just be practical.

One thing that would help on the “it’s too long” issue would be to make the text narrower. I narrowed my browser window but the site did not resize the story. I, too, found the piece a little hard to stick with, but mainly for that reason. The content kept me going.

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By M Henri Day, December 2, 2005 at 5:49 am Link to this comment
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My memories of the LA Times from my brief period during the late 50’s of the last century as a temporary refugee from the Midwest have become vague - but I remember it as a racist, red and China-baiting, Senator William Knowland type rag, which made me long for the St Louis Post-Dispatch. I had the temerity and/or the bad judgement to point this out to a salesman who via the telephone attempted to get me to subscribe to the paper ; the apoplectic fit which with my interlocutor responded to my comments made me fear that I should be held responsible for his demise. Robert McCormack’s Chicago Tribune of the period was, if anything, worse, but to regard the reading population of the extended LA area as in some way superior to their Middle-western «Philistine» counterparts is simply parochial. Local talent which demands a profit margin of over 25 % is equally capable of destroying a newspaper’s attempts at serious journalism as Cubs-loving bean-counters from Chicago ; a propostion the validity of which may soon be demonstrated if the Trib sells the Times….

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By David Wyles, December 2, 2005 at 5:30 am Link to this comment
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To the Publisher and Editors of the L.A. Times—

You certainly can’t call anything by Max Boot or Jonah Goldberg or David Gelernter excellent in any way—intellectually or literarily. Sloppy thinking, bad writing. Deadly combination.

What are you bottom-feeding flounders thinking? Hmmm…how do I make the L.A. Times sink to the mediocrity of the Chicago Tribune or the Orlando Sentinel? What else can I do to damage the Times’ once-upon-a time greatness and reputation?

Yeah, fire all of the best people, yeah, that’s what we’ll do. We can cut our costs and our subscription base in one fell swoop. Make the paper tamer, blander, and yet more right-wing at the same time. That’s the ticket.

Boy, do I miss Otis Chandler and John Carroll. And Bob Scheer and Michael Kinsley.

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By Patricia Ostrye, December 1, 2005 at 9:28 pm Link to this comment
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For 50 years reading the mornimg Times was a way of life for our family when we lived in the L.A. area. A year ago I moved to the San Diego area and, first of all, have never liked having to receive the Orange County Edition. Even the L.A. Edition would be better.  Then the editorial pages gradually got so bad that I was reading less and less of it and, finally, none of the Current Section on Sunday.  When Scheer was let go, I cancelled it. Today I received a call from the telephone crew urging me to reconsider coming back because there is a new editor.  Let’s hope it will be an improvement.  Thank you, Steve Wasserman for your in-depth analysis!  Patricia, San Diego

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By richardcheverton, December 1, 2005 at 8:47 pm Link to this comment
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I was one of the editors of the Orange County Register during the turn-around years of the ‘80s; I can vividly recall sitting around a local tavern with my cohorts, wondering when the LAT would wise up and crush us like cockroaches. They never did (until it was years too late). Big, bureaucratic organizations move in dumb, bureaucratic ways. (See: GM, Ford, Time-Warner, etc etc.) Twas ever thus. The Los Angeles Times has always been an unnatural act—from its days plumping the Chanders’ real estate holdings; to Otis’s mad delusions of competing with the NYTimes; to the Chicago boys, who are not so much dumbing-down the paper as lowering it to the stultifying boredom of the mother-paper. Why these smart guys imported a bunch of East Coast careerists to run a paper in this, the most unique and unknowable of the great American cities is both a mystery and a tragedy. Just part & parcel of the professionalization of US papers—hiring by pedigree, as opposed to talent, local street-smarts and comfort with risk. All very sad, very inevitable…hubris in motion.

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By Jawfish, December 1, 2005 at 6:36 pm Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

I was saddened to hear of even more departing journalists at the LAT. The Times has never been worth a damn at local coverage, as noted above, but I much prefer it to the Post for national and world news. Now that we know how lazy the NYT is - see Jmiller et.al. - it’s a greater loss to see the LAT bleed to death. With no fourth national paper, and the lackluster performance at NPR, there’s precious little else to choose from besides the good old New Yorker.

However, the LAT ain’t gone yet.

It’s true that bloggers, me for instance, are amateurs who rely on the paid journalists to pass on information. When our reliable sources are increasingly compromised (what me rely on the NYT for WMD info?)  the blessings of googling hundreds of newspapers will be moot.

But hey you print guys, you gotta see that the era of giant rolls of newsprint, floor after floor of management and marketing staff, and legions of delivery-people are over. Even though electronic paper and better screens are not ready yet, it’s clear that the advertising strategy is changing from broadcast paper to internet eyeballs. Book publishers beware, the days of $50 computer books and $100 college texts are numbered too. see http://www.jawfish.net/wordpress/?p=85
No I am not some wild-eyed MIT professor, pleasure reading will stay on paper for a long while, but paper delivery just doesn’t make sense for the volatile news.

For those of you who wish for local ownership, take note of our Santa Barbara News-Press. The editorial page is aimless and downright anti-social, the features have fallen off, and Wendy McCaw uses the paper to push her favorite hobby-horse, the tyranny of the Coastal Commission.

good luck to all the fallen.

John

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By Steve Wasserman, December 1, 2005 at 6:23 pm Link to this comment

Thank you all for your generally thoughtful comments.  The Internet provides a vast Democracy Wall on which anyone may post his or her manifesto.  Two, three, many opinions—all are welcome as we grow closer to the ideal of a genuinely free marketplace of ideas.

More problematic, however, is the notion some commentators have offered about the ideal length and style of writing appropriate on the Internet. Truthdig endeavors to go behind the headlines, to counter the general culture which constantly strives to shorten attention spans so that people don’t have to get a headache thinking for themselves.

The trouble with articles hardly longer in length than several haikus stitched together is that, over time, they constrain thought.  The habit of thinking only in short bursts when we need to think more deeply about the often complicated and confusing world around us, must be broken.

To be sure, it is a challenge to attract and hold the attention of people who are often distracted by the noise of our clamorous world.  Nor is it lost on me that brevity is the soul of wit.  Nonetheless, some issues—the one under discussion here, for example—require a greater commitment of both time and thought than is perhaps usual for devoted readers of the World Wide Web.

  But the Internet is vast and there is no reason why, in principle, it shouldn’t be able to accommodate every kind of taste and style.  Why is it necessary to choose between one approach and another?  Can’t they coexist?  Must they uniformly appeal to all readers?  Or, to put it another way, why can’t I listen to Beethoven one night and Little Richard the next?  Why can’t I read Nietszche as well as Michael Connelly?

  By the same token, of course the rules of Strunk & White apply: avoid cliche, pay attention to syntax and grammar, write concisely.  But, above all, be loyal to your own voice.  That’s the beauty of the web.  May a thousand voices cry out!

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By robert pointer, December 1, 2005 at 4:35 pm Link to this comment
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right, but his point is a valid one. The point behind successful, well read, and influential sites that are either in the blogosphere (or on the outer edges of it, like this one) is that they engage in conversation.

This piece read like it was talking at us, rather than talking with us (or with others also connected to the issue).

I skimmed most of it looking for the important points. Maybe its a style issue in the presentation of the piece that needs rethinking.

.02.

rob.

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By Joan Mortenson, December 1, 2005 at 3:19 pm Link to this comment
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I agree with Robert Scheer’s comment that Steve Wasserman’s piece was NOT too long.  I eagerly absorbed every bit of it.  I lament these days that everyone is so busy that reading has taken a back seat.  I do admit that I am retired and have the luxury of time for such things.

I have long noted the paucity of news om the Times about Orange County where I live but the alternative is the Register and I can’t quite go there.  I spend about two hours everyday on the Internet with such interesting sites as AlterNet, TomPaine, TomDispatch, Democracy Now and The Nation. And now, of course, I have TruthDig and the Huffington Post.  But like one of the above writers, I do miss sitting down with my cup of coffee with something in my hands.  But we make do with what we have.

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By Laurence Lewin, December 1, 2005 at 1:03 pm Link to this comment
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As a refugee from the Chicago Tribune’s ominous shadow under Robert McCormick, and a witness to the transformation of the Los Angeles Times from a provincial rag to my newspaper of record, I have been increasingly depressed by the direction and course of this Titanic.  This article explains much and raises many questions.  I do not want to see this giant sink.  I can’t read the blogs at the red lights, and Diane Pucin humanizes sports reporting and opinion.  Can a talented journalist continue to reach an audience, many of whom are searching for just this level of investigation and informed opinion, in a media other than NPR, PBS or BBC? (Specialized blogs, excluded.)  A thorougly engaging article that raises the questions that need to be answered.

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By Ben H. Bagdikian, December 1, 2005 at 12:35 pm Link to this comment
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Otis Chandler, then a holder of a third of LA Times stock, told me in 1968 that he feared the growth of newspaper chains and the downgrading of serious, in-depth reporting in favor of TV happy talk and Wall Street greed in demanding newspapers exceed their 15-24 percent margins.  It has all come to pass and worse.  Once the better papers (as well as lousy ones) had been established by a rich patriarch who wanted to say something (E.W. Scripps, Pulitizer, early Hearst (then a socialist, honest).  But by the third and fourth generations, the patriarchs’ progency were wide open to Newhouse, Gannett, and others who offered to swap them their mere $250,000-a-year dividends from their stocks by selling their shares for tens of millions from whence cameth the conglomerates—-Murdoch, Disney, and other greedy manipulators. Wall Street wanted the LA Times stock prices to rise, appointed a man named Willis, former head of a breakfast food firm, to run the LA Times.  He raised the stock prices, lost most of the best Times reporters, and in the end the Times was bought by the ChiTrib. LA Times reporters called the maker of Cheerios who pulled off these deals, “the cereal killer.” Otis failed to make his family create a trust holding all the voting stock, as have the WashPost and NYTimes. Alas.

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By Tim Hand, December 1, 2005 at 12:31 pm Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

After college, I worked in advertising sales at the LAT in the 80’s and I still remember seeing Otis Chandler in the elevator. When I worked at the LAT, I was always very proud of the product I was selling because of the quality editorial product. We all celebrated when someone in editorial won another Pulitzer…yes, even in the sales department!

It saddens me now, as a reader, to see the paper being ‘dumbed down’ and homogenized. Like others, I have also thought about cancelling my subscription (which I’ve had for 25 years) and the only reason I can think of for keeping it is to read the sports page over breakfast. I admit, it’s pretty sad that the sports page is the only reason that I subscribe to the LAT.

Hopefully, the paper will be sold to a local buyer who will realize that the only way to increase advertising sales and circulation is to invest in the editorial product. The reason people turn to a media source is not for a marketing campaign, but for the quality of the editorial.

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By Robert Scheer, December 1, 2005 at 10:40 am Link to this comment

Eric-As a reader I wanted more words from Steve not fewer. We can go as long as we want without cutting down trees.

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By Jeff Gershoff, December 1, 2005 at 10:36 am Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

What an excellent chronicle on the rise and fall of The LA Times, written by Mr Wasserman.  Having grown up on The NY Times, I have been addicted to daily newspaper reading since the late 1950s.  About ten years ago I really started taking interest in the LA Times as they were obviously becoming a world class newspaper.

How sad it has been these past few years watching the wasting away of so much of the quality so hard won.

As Wasserman points out, much of it is due plain and simple to the change in global reality brought on by the internet.  It is ironic in a way that we sit here and discuss this on a blog paper site bemoaning the situation brought on very much by the very thing we are participating in.  However, much of it is brought on by corporate greed and myopia and this is where Wasserman pulled no punches.

I knew that we were in bad trouble a few months back when I read the review of Sal Rushdie’s new book, Shalimar The Clown, in a weekday Calendar section review, and not the feature of the Sunday, Book Review.  Can you imagine?

The editorial page and op ed and letters sections are pathetic miscreants of what they were just two years ago.  If I wasn’t too old and stubborn and didn’t love newspapers so much, I’d just chuck it, drop my subscription, and go to blogs, The Nation, McNeil Lehrer, etc.  But I just can’t get myself to do that yet.  I’ll keep bombarding The Times with letters (even though with this new regime they haven’t put one of mine in there for six months or more—too vitriolic I would guess)and try to ride out the storm.

I’m not an internet lover and only participate here at my Office.  I don’t (and won’t) even own a computer at home.  Thanks, Truthdig, for a great beginning.  Best of luck.

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By Robert Scheer, December 1, 2005 at 10:30 am Link to this comment

Vince is on target-the two Franks provided at least 90% of the Latino critical voice for the paper.

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By Greg Timpany, December 1, 2005 at 7:03 am Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

As a former Times person myself, from the Circulation side of the house, I believe the only saving grace for the paper will be if it is sold and someone with a local stake picks it up.

The circulation goals set by the Chicago boys with their fedora’s and violin cases are impossible to meet given the changing demographic realities of the market. Add to this the near complete decimation of the Circulation staff and the ever waffling stance of local versus global news perspective and it becomes uphill journey.

Personally I have never worked in a place where 8 out of 10 colleagues had one thing on their mind…how to find a new job. Until the morale on the inside changes face a once great newspaper will continue its slide.

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By Sabine Reichel, December 1, 2005 at 1:54 am Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

I moved from New York to LA in 1994 - a formally trained German reporter and editor (I actually raced around the city of Hamburg with a notepad under my arm (tape recorders were too big to carry) and took stenographic notes when I was 18. )  It took some time to wean myself from the New York Times which I religiously read in my 19 years NY. The LA Times was dull and provincial - with an occasional burst of interesting stuff. But all of a sudden it got better and better - no doubt, book-wise it had something to do with Steve Wasserman’s refreshing grip on all things literally - I actually read the Times every day with a degree of pleasure (I did back it up though with a brief and far too expensive subscription to the NYT). I have to admit I also loved “Buzz” Magazine and still peak into LA Magazine, although it seems that the LA Weekly is all you need to read in LA nowadays. Somehow somewhen, 5, 6 years ago, the LA Times went downhill again, they tried to be hip, with it, too much Hollywood stuff and (inferior) fashion babble. The Op-Ed Page was a disaster (except for Scheer). Then I stopped reading it and then I moved to Berlin where I am unfortunately saddled with even more inferior papers - with one or two exceptions. So what I’m saying is, a newspaper doesn’t just reflect a city, an era and a political atmosphere but a personal voyage as well. What I miss most - and it was really exceptional in the LA Times - and always has been - is the home and food section.

Sabine Reichel, Berlin

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By Bill Turin, November 30, 2005 at 11:27 pm Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

Because of the loss of so many interesting and informative writers and editors I have considered dropping my subscription to the LA Times for several months now. I would miss the wonderful anticipatory feeling I get every morning when I start reading the paper with my breakfast. I would particularly miss Kevin Thomas’ movie revues. I value his opinions about an important interest of my life. I am an avid follower of several blogs, but they require much more concentration then when reading the paper. The length of Steve Wasserman piece is an example of the difficulty of reading articles on the computer screen. Where will I go for something to hold in my hand every day when reading the news? The NY Times is delivered to the door in my area, but it doesn’t cover local news and I am disturbed by the deterioration of that paper also. I need something to hold in my hands when I read. Help!

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By ericcunningham, November 30, 2005 at 10:00 pm Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

Steve—wordy wordy wordy - self consciously pompous dude….—I love you guys regardless, but who the heck is editing- YOU -bro. pare it down man. Truthdig can be grea, but write with efficiency. I dig what you are saying but it sounds like overbearing college spew. Just the facts!! Write Tight ! Don’t blow this thing by boring us. Post and Communicate! Post and Communicat—-Quickly….. I don’t care how smart you are—-
Let’s re-invent journalism now!!!!!  Git on it!!! Write tight and fast.
Peace & Luv Eric Cunningham smile

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By Warren Greer, November 30, 2005 at 8:29 pm Link to this comment
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An L.A. Times reporter came across a Tribune man from Chicago sitting in his little red wagon with
a butterfly tied to the handle of the wagon.
    “Why are you sitting in your wagon with a butterfly tied to the handle, sir?”
    “He’s going to pull the wagon with me in it!” was the reply.
    “You can’t make him do that,” quoth L.A.T. man.
    “Why not?” snarled the Chicagoan. “I’ve got a whip!”

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By Vince, November 30, 2005 at 6:47 pm Link to this comment
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Many fine journalists are leaving the Times. Those of us in the Latino community know, however, that Wasserman’s piece has neglected to mention that Frank Sotomayor also will be leaving the LAT after 35 years.  Frank not only knows Los Angeles but also has made significant contributions to developing at the paper an understanding of the needs and goals of the minority communities in this city.  This whole issue has been overlooked and ignored in the comments published everywhere regarding the Times newsroom changes.  Frank and George Ramos, columnist and reporter who left a few years ago, were co-editors of the Latino series of 24 articles written by Latino staffers that won the Times the 1984 Gold Medal Pulitzer Prize for Public Service.  Before that, in 1976, Frank Sotomayor, along with Leroy Aarons, Robert Maynard, John Dotson, Earl Caldwell and Walter Stovall were the founders of the Institute for Journalsim Education at UC Berkeley that worked to increase the number of people of color in the media.  This program later became the Maynard Institute for Journalism Education. Check the Maynard Institute web site’s Richard Prince’s JOURNAL-ISMS. The late Frank del Olmo and Frank Sotomayor in the ‘90’s organized the Latino Initiative at the Times that increased the coverage of the real needs and concerns of the city’s Latino population. Unfortunately, as members of the community who follow these matters know, this initiative has been dropped by the new editors from the East Coast. These editors   have shown through actions and decisions that they are not prepared to place a priority on coverage of LA’s minority communities. The death in 2004 of Frank del Olmo left a serious void in the Times columnist ranks.  In the last five years Sotomayor helped develop the Student Journalism program at the Times which won the minority recruitment award this year from a national college educators group. This program was axed three months later in the recent cuts. 
Yes, there are always institutional changes but what kind of a newspaper does not value the history of its own work and the people that made it, and its responsibility to the communities it is supposed to serve?

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By Brian, November 30, 2005 at 6:31 pm Link to this comment
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Too bad the Times can’t be commented on by the Left w/o something like this being thrown in:

“And it’s the exact same presumptive ignorance that Bush and the neocons are displaying in their so-called spread of democracy in the Middle East”

Wasserman’s post betrayed his political leanings (and those of the newsroom at the LAT) with his last graf quoting someone comparing the Trib’s leaders to Bushco.  Do daily conversations in your world always go down this road?  “I asked for a pastrami and turkey on rye, with Russian dressing, and I get pastrami with chopped liver!!  Can I not even have a decent lunch without the Zionist neocon cabal, headed up my incompetent Chimpy McHitlerhalliburton, screwing it up?!?!  Rove’s behind this, somehow, some way”.

I know this is Scheer’s site, and maybe I should expect that kind of stuff, but if we’re gonna talk about the LAT, can we just keep the focus there?

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By Grumpy Old Man, November 30, 2005 at 6:15 pm Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

I used to read the paper daily, but after I moved to Orange County it proved superfluous, and I couldn’t stand its politics.  The Orange County Register (aka the libertarian Pravda) has better local coverage, and gets its national news from the New York Times.  The LA Times went from a country-club Republican rag 20 years ago to a boringly left-liberal rag.  And always with the same stick up its a**.

They haven’t learned to talk to Asians and Latinos, let alone blacks.  The slacker generation can’t or won’t read a daily paper.  The early adopters have gone over to the Internet.

They could stanch the bleeding by finding a distinctive regional voice, getting gritty instead of namby-pamby (Kaus says—get a gossip column) and becoming more politically diverse.

Ain’t gonna happen unless the Chicago Trib dumps the paper and some smart locals (or even Rupert Murdoch) buy it.

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By Anne Dowie, November 30, 2005 at 6:08 pm Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

Great article, Steve. I’ve been watching this play out for years.
Moronic indeed! The very arrogance of these suits coming out here with no respect or acknowledgement of the talent that made the L.A. Times the great paper that it was, and insisting it make more money for them while imposing all their cost-cutting constraints. They ain’t got no horse sense, that’s for sure. It would be like trying to beat a better performance out of a racehorse by shoving aside the trainer and cutting back on his feed.  And it’s the exact same presumptive ignorance that Bush and the neocons are displaying in their so-called spread of democracy in the Middle East.

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By Andrew C. Morales, November 30, 2005 at 4:45 pm Link to this comment
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Mr. Wasserman, your article was very insightful and extremely accurate.  Being formally in Marketing department at The Times (as of last month), it was baffling to see the number of new non-media experienced professionals coming in.  Sitting in one of “John O” meetings, the new Sr. V.P. of Marketing and Planning at The Times (a “golden boy” from Tribune) was like watching those late night infomercials on motivational speeches that were full of hot air.  We would come back to our offices and say, what the heck just happened and where did this guy come from???  He thinks he knows the L.A. Market and is surrounded by YES people.  Too bad, because those of us that showed any passion and respect to The Times are pushed away.

As one of the very, very few Latino’s in middle-management at The Times, I too have been shown the door with the recent lay-offs.  Now don’t get me started on how “non-diverse” the Marketing department has transformed since its new Tribune management taken over.  When “John O” told me over the phone, yes over the phone, that I did not have the “skill sets” needed for his new team, well I had to tell MBA professors at the university I attend.  Boy my Organization Behavior prof. laughed hard and gave a laundry list of job openings of companies that know the true potential for a bilingual and bicultural Latino in this emerging Latino Market in Los Angeles.  I know when I graduate I will have a bright future.

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By Robert Fiore, November 30, 2005 at 4:42 pm Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

The theory that people in Los Angeles don’t read will apparently stand up to any amount of objective evidence to the contrary.  All I can say is that if we don’t we certainly have a strange habit of buying them.  I suppose you have to be in the books to be that impervious to fact, but the more you know about the book business the less surprising that becomes.  It’s like the “I’m the only Gay in the village” routine on Little Britain:  A lot of people get a lot of satisfaction out of believing they’re the only literate person in town.

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By Warren Greer, November 30, 2005 at 4:30 pm Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

Well, if you have to destroy it to save it, you really haven’t saved it.  Dropping Bob Scheer was the dropping of the other shoe, and it left us barefoot in an increasingly thorny Bush-managed news environment.

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By Kenneth Reich, November 30, 2005 at 3:12 pm Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

Steve Wasserman, if anything, is understating the situation when he calls the executives of the Tribune Co. “moronic.”

These incompetents are slitting their own throats by trying to do in the Los Angeles Times. When they bought the paper, they should have moved their headquarters to Los Angeles, made the LAT their flagship, and cut back the hopelessly lackluster Chicago Tribune.

Let’s hope Steve has it right when he quotes someone as saying Dennis FitzSimons, the Tribune CEO, is hanging on by his finger nails. It’s time for him and his colleagues to fall, and let’s hope they don’t walk away with the kind of severance Mark Willes got.

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By S Blackhawke, November 30, 2005 at 2:51 pm Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

in the late 1980-to-90s as a journalist majoring in print media, I went to school in LA in hopes of landing a job for a local newspaper and of course the dream job was the LA Times. Certain rude awakenings particularly for people of color was a right of passage for me and others. Since then some efforts had been implemented to change the insider culture and expand qualitatively as well as increasing circulation but the local flavor is gone, the problem persist and the paper is less likely to grow internally when continued disconnection in meaningful ways of the communities it serves and reflects are dominated by corporate mongols from chi-town and elsewhere. Solution? Bring back local ownership, diversity and journalistic intergrity beholden to truth first and the bottom line second.

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By Brian, November 30, 2005 at 12:20 pm Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

I appreciate Mr. Wasserman’s apparent concern for the current state of the LAT, and for his service at the paper for many years.  The last time I saw or heard from him was at a pre-war debate at the Wiltern theater in L.A. 

Niceties aside, I think what is left out of his analysis is the likelihood that the newsroom there became so politicized over the last 30 years that it infected all aspects of its reporting.  I’m a 44-y.o. L.A. native, and have subscribed to the LAT for the last 25 of these years.  As a reader, one of my own frustrations with the paper (and this was before the Windy City bureaucrats showed up) has been the obvious politicization of stories, working opinion or agenda into stories where it didn’t belong.  This happened across local, national, and international reporting.  This aspect of the “problems” at the LAT should not be overlooked.

I am afraid that the LAT is being carved out and pared down in preparation for imminent sale to a new owner.  What gives me hope that I am wrong are the noticeable changes occuring, i.e. replacing Bob Scheer and other “stalwarts” (a euphemism for “relaible leftists”?)with new styles and personalities.  This is not a bad thing.  I know a lot of people are in a lather about this, but change is absolutely necessary if the paper is to survive, and such change(s) are likely to displease readers.  Even if today I was given the job of leading the paper’s future, I wouldn’t go in and say “things look great here….let’s keep up the terrific work!”; I’d toss the salad.  Like it or not, that’s what is being done, and has needed to be done for a long time.  Most recently, Robert Hilburn has departed as chief music critic, and this too is a positive move.  The question then becomes: who fills the void?  This is where I am not completely confident that the Times will succeed, but I am watching and hanging in there. 

The Trib’s acquisition of KTLA, as has been detailed, remains a questionable move.  Synergy has been debunked as a strategy, and this is a textbook example of why.  KTLA’s news, especially in the mornings, is a cavalcade of dunces.  It is an unwatchable source for news, so I stay away from it like a disease.  The Times best hope is to disassociate itself from KTLA as quickly as possible, lest it continue to be associated, even if sub-consciously, with those dunderheads.  The cranks in Chicago, not having any original ideas for building a first rate news business, maybe thought that combining the resources of two local news organizations, both editorially and technologically, would magically solve the future business.  Clearly they had no idea what they were doing; if you build it, they won’t necessarily come.

As a native, I resent the lack of local knowledge coming from the paper (and from the local TV news).  I cringe when a local anchor will pronounce the city of Camarillo like “armadillo”.  The LAT’s coverage, in a general sense, is worse because it has no sense of “place”.  I have my own ideas of what I would do to have it gain back the respect of the region, but that’s not relevant here.  However, a key instrument of change at the LAT is to get enough local voices into management to properly decide upon and cover what is important to the communities, then combine it in a way that is comprehensive to the larger region.  There are many communities within the SoCal area, and within Los Angeles.  Can they be covered, yet be covered in a manner that demonstrates that their relevance to the larger fabric of life in the area?  I would hope so, but the paper needs to decide: is it an L.A. paper, or a SoCal paper?

I honestly sometimes wonder why I continue subscribing to the Times, but I really know why.  As Mr. Wasserman confirms, it’s the place where real reporting happens, and it provides the fodder for which the blogosphere largely depends (I’m also a serious blog reader).  Where else can an Angeleno, for instance, get the kind of reporting that disclosed the problems at King/Drew Medical Center earlier this year?  That was a daring series, and deserves to be held up as an example of what the paper’s serious reporting should be about—it was relevant to the community, but also to the larger region because it involves the city’s political, financial, and emergency resources.  I won’t bore anyone with comments on what should change in the “soft” sections, like Calendar or Sports, but every now and then there is an example of great reporting that makes me think….“That’s what they’re about!  They nailed it!!”.

As I said, change is necessary.  In fact, it is inevitable.  The same is happening in the TV and music businesses.  Do we fear it, or do we embrace it?  It sounds cliche, but it’s true.  It’s just technology.  Consequences will come from it, good and bad.  It always does, and the problem is that we tend to only tout the good, or fear the bad.  The LAT can survive, and so can its counterparts.  As an aside, the TV business, of which I was formerly a member, once had strict rules on what was “broadcast quality”.  This more or less was defined by rigid engineering specifications, but also rigidly judged the audio-visual’s aesthetic.  But we started to challenge this rigidity, wondering “What is broadcast quality, exactly?”.  If I can find a way to technically get the signal through the transmitter and into the home, everything else is subjective.  Questions like these brought home video into the editing room and generated shows like “America’s Funniest Home Videos”, but also brought raw news footage from consumer video cameras.  It became a subjective exercise, more than a technical one.  Returning to newspapers, we have a framework that guarantees a free press.  But what does that mean nowadays when we can foresee the day when there is content, but no press, and when bloggers are bastardizing the notion of what a journalist is?  Like “broadcast quality”, what is a “journalist”?  Is it a blogger who calls himself a journalist?  What defines this role?  Is it someone who only works for the owner of the “press”?  And, what is “the press” now?  Maybe there are crystal clear answers to these questions, but it seems to me that these are all part of the great change, the great shakeout, happening, and if press organizations like the Los Angeles Times can identify them, answer them, and have the intellectual capital at hand to respond to them, they can be sustained and evolve into the press of the 21st Century.

I’m welcoming those changes, and again I thank Mr.Wasserman for contributing to the process.

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By Robert Castle, November 30, 2005 at 11:25 am Link to this comment
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Having just read “U.S. Military Covertly Pays to Run Stories in Iraqi Press - Troops write articles presented as news reports,” in the Wednesday edition of the L.A.Times, your well-written and informative report was poignant, pregnant with significance. If the conservatives have their way, journalism will be co-opted by the executive branch of the government and become synonymous with propaganda.

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By CS, November 30, 2005 at 11:22 am Link to this comment
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I was with the Times Orange County during its heyday, fortunately leaving before the tragic “gutting” began.

Now, of course, they want to be more local.

I loved the Times, but the management of it has been a procession of errors for quite some time now.

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By Stephen Siciliano, November 30, 2005 at 11:12 am Link to this comment
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Always enjoyed the Book Review (despite bloggers’ attacks) and thought L.A. didn’t deserve Wasserman. You have to be in books to understand the long-standing (though improving) aversion to them locally.

Great(and I suspect “gutsy” even if he’s gone)insiders’ account of what’s happening at “The Times” and in L.A. generally.

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By Jimmy Montague, November 30, 2005 at 4:43 am Link to this comment
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Good piece, Mr. Wasserman—especially your thoughts about “the blogosphere”:

“Internet devotees trumpet its virtues while refusing to concede that old-fashioned newspapers supply the reporting without which the blogosphere would simply be a virtual balloon filled entirely with hot air. The Internet exploits the hard-won authority of traditional news-gathering institutions without offering such perceived dinosaurs a way of avoiding extinction.”

You’ve articulated there my personal doubts about blogs, about the supposed merits of the blog medium, the intellectual capacity and the motives of the people who power it, the arguable potential of the blogging movement. If the news business becomes a room full of people who report only what they THINK is happening as opposed to hard facts, who believe that truth is never more than politics, then the change will be a devolution. Our freedom to speak freely will have made slaves of us all.

I’m also glad to see that somebody else still values Bagdikian’s book.

Peacelovehope!

Jimmy M

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By N Jahr, November 30, 2005 at 4:01 am Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

Two aspects of this all fascinate me:

1. The way in which the much vaunted economies of scale enabled by conglomeration and cross-market ownership come down to unloading labor. Even turning a 20% profit, mass layoffs are necessary to fatten the bottom line (anyone know what the Tribune execs are making?) There was an interesting post over at DailyKos recently discussing the now neglected political dimensions of anti-trust legislation:

http://www.dailykos.com/tag/Antitrust Law

But the experience of the LA Times (among many others) might suggest yet another economic argument: it preserves jobs.

2. Barring a reinvigoration of ownership restrictions, as the newspapers are increasingly hollowed out, their editorial staff centralized, local shoe leather discarded, etc., no one has really been able to figure out how the internet can provide an alternative (as opposed to a complement). For one thing, how do reporters make a living through this medium? Truthdig is notably free of advertising; does this mean the work of reporting is confined only to academics, editors, etc. able to moonlight? Secondly, as more of us get our news over the web, we get it from increasingly politicized sources, DailyKos, Truthdig, Truthout, what have you. Maybe the discourse can’t get much more polarized than Fox News has already made it; maybe that polarization isn’t a bad thing. But I can’t help but suspect the further collapse of any sort of shared narrative of what’s happening to our world represents a real danger.

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By Richard Silverstein, November 30, 2005 at 3:00 am Link to this comment
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I lived in Los Angeles during the 1980s & 90s during the Otis Chandler era when the paper really became a publication of record.  I read it religiously & admired much of what I read.  I loved Kevin Thomas’ eloquent film reviews among others.

After leaving LA, I heard the paper had been defanged by the Chandler family & then the merger happened.  It is so sad to hear of the paper riding that downhill slope.

But who knows…if the Tribune is worth more as separate parts than as a whole, then perhaps the paper will come on the mkt. again.  I just hope some smart local folks will start raising some money to buy it & try to return it to its glory.

BTW, I read that Bob wants Truthdig to do in-depth long-form pieces & I admire him for that.  But man, this piece was long for an online story!  I’m not saying it deserved shortening.  It was cogent & well-written.  Just hard to slog through its length.

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By Daniel Hunt, November 30, 2005 at 2:53 am Link to this comment
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As a former TCNer, I’m glad I moved to Northern California when I did. Nonetheless, it’s sad what Chicago has done to the paper that helped foster my love for journalism.

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By Mike Michaels, November 30, 2005 at 1:19 am Link to this comment
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I agree with LA Dave’s comments that the LA Times has never been very good about tackling the old boy system that runs this town, awarding public contracts to everybody from our favorite subway builder to insider downtown law firms. The stench has been overwhelming for years.

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By Kay Brown, November 30, 2005 at 12:59 am Link to this comment
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Thank you Steve - we miss your being here but the Internet keeps you close. Maybe the web will bring out the I.F. Stone in all of us! Ben Franklin said: “If you would not be forgotten, soon as you’re dead and rotten, either do the things worth the writing or write the things worth the reading” - I think that applies to the web as well.

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By Josh Legere, November 30, 2005 at 12:46 am Link to this comment
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I didn’t even know Wasserman left the Times.  That explains why the Book Review section has gotten so stale. 

He didn’t just do a good job editing the Book Review section, but also his work on the LA Times book fest was indispensable.  I think it drew almost 100,000 last year.  For a literary festival in Los Angeles!  That is a great achievement.  He may not know it but he was a public intellectual, someone that could moderate a debate with heavyweights like Danner, Hitchens, etc… without alienating the audience. 

On a personal note, the LA Times Book Fest and the Book Review really played an important role in stimulating my own interest in literature.  While exiting the university upon graduation, like many other modern students, I found it really hard to fill the void and find a literary / intellectual culture to be part of.  Especially in Los Angeles, home of the low.  The Book Fest was my favorite event of the year, and certainly fills that void a bit.  I am sure that the panels will become bland and boring.   

LA has lost a lot with the implosion of the Times and the loss of the likes of Wasserman.

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By Paul Omundson, November 29, 2005 at 10:54 pm Link to this comment
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Wasserman makes a key point in his clear, concise synopsis of the L.A. Times tragedy. That is the fact that excellence in journalism (really, no matter what the medium) is based on the basic, core skill of “shoe leather” reporting. He is right on in suggesting that a main weakness of current web communications vehicles is the lack of this solid foundation in deference to instantaneous opinions.

Those of us at the Times in the years just prior to the transition of ownership to the Tribune Co. didn’t notice much attention to the value of that shoe leather journalism. Instead, we were treated to David Lynchian drama spun by Captain Crunch, Kathryn and her foibles and all those ceaseless marketing schemes, culminating in that infamous Staples edition of the Times magazine.

In short, I think the Times slit it’s own arrogant throat way before the Chandler family sell-out and the Tribune bean counters came along. May it rest in peace. And may we all gravitate to new and exciting venues of news, on the desktop and in print, where shoe leather reporting is king.

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By Henry Holland, November 29, 2005 at 10:49 pm Link to this comment
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They’re Midwestern white men obsessed with only two things: the Chicago Cubs and accounting. They care nothing for journalism. They are Philistines

Hahahahaha.  That’s fantastic. 

I didn’t know Kevin Thomas was let go/had gone.  Not only was he a fantastic, evenhanded movie reviewer, he was one of the very few openly gay writers at the paper.

Stupid Midwestern, Cubs-obsessed Philistines.

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By Lee Frank, November 29, 2005 at 8:10 pm Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

Thank you for a full analysis of what has been going on backstage at The Times.  I had very little idea of how extensive has been the attack on the newspaper’s system. It seems that corporate profiteering is a pervasive cancer killing our democratic processes in many areas (not just journalism).  I hope it’s not terminal, but I fear it is.

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By David Yuguchi, November 29, 2005 at 8:07 pm Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

“Tom Hayden’s incisive letter to the Times of Nov. 27” seems to be missing on the LA Times website.

Thank you for your perspective on the predicament the LA Times finds itself in.  So it looks like this paper will not be able to find itself soon, since there are too many competing interests and too much pressure to make all that money.  So in classic market studies, wouldn’t this provide an opening for another paper, or papers, that weren’t so concerned about making a 26% profit margin?

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By LA Dave, November 29, 2005 at 7:25 pm Link to this comment
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Steve Wasserman’s departure from the LA Times Book Review was a major loss.  His tally of Timespeople leaving (George Skelton, Larry Stammer) is depressing and his thoughtful analysis of the problems of the Tribune-owned Times is perceptive. 

But, as a longtime reader of the Times, I must say that I found aspects of the paper infuriating long before the Tribune bought it.  In the 1980s and 90s, for example, while the quality of the LA Unified School District was disintegrating, the Times ignored the schools.  Coverage hasn’t much improved since then and we are forced to rely on the LA Daily News for sensationalist (but often essential) coverage in this area. Coverage of local politics?  Forget it.  These deficiencies were apparent during the editorship of the sainted Shelby Coffey, long before Spring Street was a glint in any Michigan Avenue eye.   

The Washington Post seems to be able to both thoroughly cover local stories in Washington and the Maryland and Virginia suburbs as well as serve as a national and international journalistic bellweather.  The Post also has terrific market penetration in its circulation area, unlike the Times.

While the Tribune Company’s bottom-line focus on profits has hurt, and probably will continue to hurt, the Times, Dean Baquet is right to be thinking about increasing the paper’s focus on local issues.

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By OCPatriot, November 29, 2005 at 7:01 pm Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

Thanks for a clearer explanation of what has been happening at the Times.  My only expectation was why didn’t they do it sooner after they bought the whole damnged thing?  I had expected they would stupidly gut it much earlier.  While the OCRegister and OCWeekly, where I live, thrive, the Times has gone downhill in terms of all of what a newspaper stands for.  But, then again, I got out of journalism early on, when I worked for the NY Post and saw that there were fewer and fewer papers, not more and more, until most mewtropolitan areas had only a single paper.  Sorry about the loss of jobs, which is always traumatic and tragic.

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By Mary Sanchez, November 29, 2005 at 6:57 pm Link to this comment
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You have given me reason to believe that truth, blogged or otherwise, will always out, midwestern thought notwithstanding. Your deep and provocative piece must speak for so many of us who mourn the loss of true journalism and true journalists. Thank you

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By Janet West, November 29, 2005 at 6:34 pm Link to this comment
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I have been a subscriber to the Los Angeles Times for 10 years. I have been struggling lately with why I continue to subscribe. It is a habit. For years I was excited to get up and read the times. Now I am just disgusted that the papers pile up in my home and resent having to take them to the trash. I am holding on for Steve Lopez and the Suduko puzzle and some local reporting. The “Opinion” section has been trashed. They fired Robert Scheer, the only guy who predicted “there’s no weapons of mass destruction” BEFORE we began the invasion.

I hope the paper can be saved before it is totally trashed.

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By buzzzed, November 29, 2005 at 5:31 pm Link to this comment
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Mucho insightful. 

I would add that the press has been complicit by resting on its laurels and allowing corporations & politicians (the right particularly) to dictate what constitutes news for the past 25 years.

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By Alice McCracken, November 29, 2005 at 5:21 pm Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

Very detailed and thoughtful discussion of a major trend in the news. More depth than I am used to seeing on the Internet. Congrats!

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By Mary Bielitz, November 29, 2005 at 4:50 pm Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

As a devoted reader of the LA Times for many years, I have been heartbroken by what I have seen occuring.  The loss of Robert Scheer was just about the last straw.  The one consolation is that I now have at least an extra hour to surf the internet and find sites like Truthdig and HuffingtonPost.  I can now speedread the editorial pages of the Times.

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