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Why your 50 cents for The Times is the best bargain in the world

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Way back in my cub days at the Oakland Tribune, the paper I read growing up, I learned to check the bulletin board every day to see who the owner was. We had four of them in six years, and a wise man would have known then to leave journalism for dry-cleaning, embalming, clam-digging, anything with a brighter future.

But I enjoyed my job enough to feel like a thief every time the paycheck cleared, and I stubbornly believed the newspaper industry would smooth out eventually. It's apparent, looking back seven newspaper jobs later, that I'm an extremely slow learner.

Now here I am at The Times, where in seven years I've had two owners, four editors and three publishers -- a fourth is on the way, they tell us -- and another round of staff reductions this week.

Like a lot of my colleagues, I've wondered if I should finally give it up, or might be forced to. But most of us dread the idea for the same reasons we've always had: We love what we do, we believe in the cause, and we realize that on the open market we're not as employable as, say, a laid-off IndyMac janitor.

The joy of my job is that I honestly don't know what I might do from one day to the next, but I can always figure it will be pretty interesting.

On a recent Saturday night, I toured L.A. with the Rev. Jeff Carr, director of the city's gang reduction and youth development programs, listening as he spoke unwaveringly about his mission to keep kids out of cemeteries and prisons.

On Thursday, I said hello to Vin Scully and watched Tommy Lasorda eat enough food to kill a rhinoceros as he sang the praises of longtime Dodger Stadium chef Dave Pearson.

On Sunday morning, I sat on a porch in Lincoln Heights, talking to a terminally ill woman about the evolving history of the neighborhood, the things she needs to do before she dies and the heartache she feels for the beloved husband she recently took to a home in Rosemead because of his dementia.

On Monday I went to the Bastille Day "Take Back L.A." rally at City Hall, where Dan and Bridget Shycoff of Studio City wondered why they pay more now for fewer services, and why City Controller Laura Chick's exposés of municipal waste and dunderheadedness don't always lead to changes, pink slips and floggings in the public square.

"I ask that same question," Chick said when I introduced her to the Shycoffs.

Every day of the year, hundreds of my colleagues do similar things in Los Angeles, across the country and around the world. They go places, ask questions and hold people accountable. Some of them risk their lives because they believe in the role of a free press in a troubled world and because they believe a photograph or a story is that important to you.

It's all yours for 50 cents -- a small, plain cup of Starbucks coffee costs three times as much -- or for free on the website. With the print edition, the coupons alone put you so far ahead, it's not a stretch to call you a genius.

Although that money doesn't buy you the same-size staff that was in place when I arrived seven years ago, those two quarters still buy you the biggest, best, most ambitious news-gathering operation west of the Hudson River. It's also the most objective, despite competing claims from the chatter-happy fringes that the paper is either too liberal or too conservative.

So why am I telling you this? Because changes at the paper are often in the news, but we generally edit all human emotion out of those stories.

And because newspapers, which are in the business of persuading companies that they have to promote their products -- especially in the worst of times -- spend next to nothing promoting themselves.

I'm also speaking up to honor the work of my colleagues who are losing their jobs as you read this, and will be sorely missed.

To educate the owners and remind them not to underestimate the sophistication of the Southern California audience, which will flee in droves if the paper is shrunk to the size of a gum wrapper despite continued profits many businesses would envy.

To let David Geffen know that if he's still interested in buying the joint, it wouldn't be the first time we rolled the dice on a short, bald owner with a Malibu beach compound.

And to thank hundreds of thousands of readers who, in the midst of a revolution that has created unlimited outlets for news and information, keep coming back to this newspaper day after day.

They come back for Plaschke, Simers and Streeter.

For Morrison, Skelton and Banks.

For Turan, Goldstein and Swed.

For Lazarus, Petruno and Neil.

For Blankstein, Winton and Leovy.

For reporters and photographers on the hunt in Washington, Iraq, Afghanistan, Asia and Latin America.

I was at a banquet a few weeks ago and used that line about the best, biggest, most ambitious and most objective news operation.

Nobody contested it.

And I didn't even mention Sudoku, "Doonesbury" and the horoscopes.

steve.lopez@latimes.com

Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times
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