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Ailing Journalism in Ailing Times

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Posted on Jul 5, 2010
AP / Reed Saxon

A note informs prospective buyers that the Times has temporarily “sold out.” Indeed.

By T.L. Caswell

(Page 4)

The final sentence of the above quotation is remarkable: It was the L.A. Times, not the advertisers, that cooked up these journalistic atrocities. Instead of just going along with the gags, the newspaper thought them up.

In an earlier article, in 2009, The Wrap reported that LAT staffers were infuriated by the “Southland” incident:

Editorial staffers feel the ads betray and devalue their work, while the business side says they are necessary to keep the struggling paper afloat. Meanwhile, digital staffers say that their counterparts in newsprint need to wake up and face inevitable change.

“I’m just trying to keep the lights on here, folks,” pleaded publisher Eddy Hartenstein as he faced an angry newsroom … according to several people who were present. …

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… Hartenstein said the paper made “six figures” in revenue for the front-page “Southland” ad.

Perhaps amid the high turnover in the LAT executive suites the Hartenstein cohort doesn’t know of, or conveniently has chosen to forget or ignore, a certain event of the dim, dark, distant past—1999. That was the year the Times was humiliated by an ad-related scandal that generated enough controversy to merit a report on PBS’ “NewsHour With Jim Lehrer.” Mark Willes, who was the CEO of Times Mirror, then the parent company, and Times Publisher Kathryn Downing—neither of whom had any journalistic experience—were leading the newspaper when LAT executives secretly approved a deal under which the paper published a special edition of its Sunday magazine dedicated to news about Los Angeles’ new multi-sport arena, Staples Center; the plan called for covertly splitting the ad revenue profits between the newspaper and Staples. When this violation of professional ethics was exposed by other publications, the scandal reverberated throughout the journalistic world and the newspaper itself was awash in crisis. Many LAT reporters and editors were enraged by management’s betrayal, and some reportedly angrily confronted high executives, including Willes, previously the publisher, who had been ignorantly campaigning to tear down the traditional “wall” between the news/editorial staff and the advertising department.

At the time, the copy desks of the LAT were buzzing with “advice” for Downing and Willes—a former General Mills executive who after launching harsh staff cuts at the LAT became known as “the cereal killer” and “Capt’n Crunch.” Some of the advice being hashed over by us foot soldiers went like this: Mr. Willes, Ms. Downing, (1) find a college with a good basic course in journalism; (2) sign up for and attend that class; (3) learn that news is news and advertising is advertising; (3) learn that integrity, straightforwardness and a reputation for truthfulness and credibility are a newspaper’s most valuable assets—in the deepest sense, its only real assets; (4) learn that ethics matter in both business and journalism; (5) learn that not everything has a price.

Now I offer that warmed-over advice to the Times management of 2010, without change or charge. And I will toss in an extra bit: If the Los Angeles Times can stay in business only through practices that trample ethical standards and insult editorial staffers who respect and have lived by those standards, maybe the newspaper should not be in business. … What terrible words to direct at the organization I’ve revered for so long. I hope my friends at the Times will forgive me.

One person eminently qualified to speak out on the LAT is my Truthdig colleague Bill Boyarsky. Boyarsky’s list of credentials is long. He now is Truthdig’s political columnist, and last month the Los Angeles Press Club named him online journalist of the year for his work in that capacity. Boyarsky was at the Times from 1970 to 2001 in a number of roles, finally as city editor, and he is the author of a book about the Times, “Inventing L.A.: The Chandlers and Their Times.” His place in California journalism is a special one. In response to an e-mail query from me about the newest scandal at the Times, here’s what he had to say:

… When I realized it [the section about the Universal “disaster”] was another con, my reaction was disgust rather than anger. After the previous fake ad/news stories, I could see that anger is a waste of time. Ad sales now shape the Los Angeles Times, just as they do other papers, local and network television and the Internet.

This issue means a lot to me and to others from the Los Angeles Times who rebelled a decade ago against the arrangement between the paper’s magazine and Staples over the division of ad sales from a special edition of the magazine to mark the opening of Staples Center. The issue was clear. Staples would dictate or at least help shape the content. This was a clear breaking down of the wall that had separated the news and the advertising departments. Staff members signed petitions protesting the arrangement and then demanding an investigation by our media reporter, the late David Shaw, on how it happened. A climactic moment was [former Publisher] Otis Chandler’s message, which he had me deliver to the staff. 

We naively thought we had won. But in the decade that followed, I have seen the so-called “wall” demolished all through the media. It seems like an archaic custom now. Mention the “wall” at one of those endless, boring conferences on the media’s future and people don’t know what you are talking about. When I see veterans of the Staples fight, we wonder what the hell we were fighting for. … The Times’ fake news stories and phony front pages are merely flagrant examples of what is happening in the media world.


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By faith, July 7, 2010 at 10:10 am Link to this comment

I am surprised Mr. Caswell, that you hung on to your respect for the LAT for so
long.  I stopped my subscription when the LAT powers that be fired Robert Scheer
for his opinion columns opposing the Iraq war.  Actually, I know several readers
that did so beside myself.

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By garth, July 7, 2010 at 8:34 am Link to this comment

This article is not unexpected.  I heard stories about the layoffs at the LA Times a few years ago.  I think the capitalists (Capitalists, by the way, are the ones who believe that someone somewhere has a few bucks that they can steall.) who were involved in the takeover of the Chicago tribune were also there when the LA Times needed an infusion of cash. Cuts and layoffs must follow.

The Boston Globe recently went through a contract dispute with its owner, the NY Times.  The unions gave up a lot.  The NY Times awarded its key personnel bonuses.  The Sunday Times hereabouts goes for more than 5 bucks.  Where do they get off?

The Boston Globe, of which I am a Sunday subscriber, has continued its march to print all the news that is already known or unimportant. Fluff. And they they have no continuation of coverage.  All that is news happens only once. Read ‘em and weep!

The Globe would be better off in saving money if they were to re-issue old editions with a new date, a sort of palimpsest of the dateline.  Their news makes that much difference.

They are trying to get people to lament about the lost art of journalism, the lost pleasure of reading a newspaper the first thing in the morning, the funnies, the favorite columnist, etc.  It ain’t going nowhere.

If you want to get a grasp on what’s going on, use your noodle.  Read, “War in Cliche”, by Martin Amis.  His writings with give a good perspective among many other things.  Keep a dictionary handy.

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Go Right Young Man's avatar

By Go Right Young Man, July 7, 2010 at 5:15 am Link to this comment

Not to worry Mr. Caswell.  The Community Organizer come junior Senator come U.S. President will, in the name of “social justice” save the day.  The U.S. government will gladly take control of the newspaper industry.

The integrity of the news industry will be repaired under the warm and steady guidance of the White House and the FCC.

Feel all better now?

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By iain, July 6, 2010 at 6:44 pm Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

So you’re like the guy “who truly loves his wife and truly loves his girlfriend too. (That image will probably cost me any wives, girlfriends and champions of holy wedlock who are reading this”. Apart from the fact that you’ve just alienated any LGBT readers (interesting how the literate UK press refers to ‘partners’ and doesn’t bother getting into gender), it is worth pointing out that you assume a lot of your readers, most of whom likely wish you’d just stop congratulating yourself on how seriously your imagined readers are taking you and Get. To. Your. Point. But no, on you go, rhetorical flourishes and college-magazine standard emphases aloft. I suggest you take the story very seriously, and yourself very much less so.

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By Anita Busch, July 6, 2010 at 1:54 pm Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

I’ve seen worse ethical breaches than this at the L.A. Times.

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By Edwin J. Perkins, July 6, 2010 at 1:03 pm Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

I still subscribe to the LA Times, but hold my nose when I read it. As a welcome supplement, mainly for sports and business, I also get USA Today delivered in the morning along with the Times down here near Laguna Beach.  I wish the Times would become affiliated with USC or UCLA and then be operated as a non-profit.  That is the only chance for its revival in my view

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By garth, July 6, 2010 at 11:17 am Link to this comment

When I looked at the front page, so to speak, of Truthdig, I wondered: Is all okay except for the endless drone of useless nostalgia about the American Press?

Is Obama still President? 

Obama is such a fertile target for the honest onlooker.


For example,
I caught the tail-end of Maureen Dowd’s interview on ABC’s GMA last week.  She said, Obama is thin skinned.  He doesn’t have the advantage of previous Presidents of recent memory like JFK and George W. who were brought up in patrician families with the spirit of confidence.  In short, Obama doesn’t have the ability to shrug off the slings and arrows of outrageous misfortune.

Maureen finished by saying that Obama is thin-skinned and has adapted shields.

I thought that was his strong point—his skin.  He is, after all, the first black President.  Imagine Jesse Jackson or Al Sharpton whining about being thin-skinned?

Obama’s inadequacy comes through quite clearly when one compares him, his deeds and his speeches with almost any black leader in the US.

Take, for example, the canard that he is smart. He doesn’t seem al that smart to me.  He might have been able to pass certain tests that got him this far, but he is not smart.  He is above average, maybe. 

Witness his inability to handle George Stephanopolous in their give and take on ABC’s “This Week” a few months ago.

Compare speeches.  Everyone says that Obama is a great speaker. 

Compare Obama’s, “We are not Red States or Blue States.  We are the United States” with Rodney King’s lament, “Why can’t we all just get along?”

Now, look at Al Sharpton’s inspirational “40 acres and a mule” speech.  They didn’t want to let Sharpton speak.

He said, in effect, Fool me once shame on you.  Fool me twice, Never!

In summary, Obama’s like the guy you knew in high school.

And doesn’t that piss you off to no end?

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By Old Man Turtle, July 6, 2010 at 10:36 am Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

So the “Fourth Estate” turns-out to be just one more fifth-column carrier of “the industrial disease, and another institutional icon at-last reveals its feet of clay blatantly enough that even the sincerest of true believers can no longer escape having to admit what’s been obvious to many for a long time already.  No “news” there.  No doubt legions of faithful Catholics can sympathize with Mr. Caswell, along with maybe hundreds of millions of Americans faced with the in-your-face corruption and malevolence of corporate “governance.”

Here in what Derrick Jensen aptly calls the “ENDGAME” of civilization, anybody with any sense knows things will certainly get a whole helluva lot worse before they can start to get even a little bit better.  If we’re lucky it’ll happen soon and fast.  If we’re not, this is going to be a real bitter lesson in WHY it’s not nice to fuck-with Mother Nature.  Either way, can you sing “Bye-bye, Miss American Pie.”?

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Eric L. Prentis's avatar

By Eric L. Prentis, July 6, 2010 at 10:07 am Link to this comment

Advertising, advertising that looks like news or propaganda are what the MSM delivers today because it is owned by the privileged, powerful and wealthy corporate elites whose goals are to manipulate the American people, sell stuff and to protect their positions in society. Solution: first and foremost, STOP WATCHING TV, next, stop listening to the radio and, finally, stop reading newspapers or at least don’t take them seriously.

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Anarcissie's avatar

By Anarcissie, July 6, 2010 at 9:56 am Link to this comment

In many ways I, too, prefer the technology of ink on paper to that of computers and monitors.  However, I think we should not confuse technology with truth, which seems to be part of the moaning and groaning about the death of the daily newspaper.  Newspapers and books have been full of lies and errors since they were invented; as with stuff written on the Internet, you have to approach any story with caution and look for verification.  (“Believe nothing until it has been officially denied three times” is one of the better rules of thumb.)  Apparent accuracy and gravitas were part of the print act during a certain period, but the utility of that act has passed.  The Net is often better at exposing bogus tales than the press.  Had hoaxes like the one described been attempted on the L.A. Times’s web site, comparison with other sites would have revealed the fiction immediately.

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By SoTexGuy, July 6, 2010 at 7:25 am Link to this comment

The first few paragraphs of this article hooked me.. I am in agreement with the author about the unique pleasure of browsing the morning paper and am also angered by the overt and insidious ways my newspaper has morphed into a tabloid for hucksters and more.

Aside from excessive advertising one thing that has also crept into print media is excessive wordiness, cut and paste text, needless explanation and endless repetition.. seemingly simply for the sake of filling space and columns.. THIS article itself could be an example of that.

How clever of the writer to so subtly demonstrate that evil!

Adios.

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