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

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.

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.

Steve Wasserman
Contributor
Steve Wasserman, former editor of the Los Angeles Times Book Review and a principal architect of the Los Angeles Times Festival of Books, is a former partner of the literary agency...
Steve Wasserman

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