July 10, 2008
I think we agree that the economic problems newspapers face these days are largely driven by the rise of the Internet, which allows new competition without barriers to entry. I know of no magic solution for keeping a bloated monopoly at pre-competition staffing levels -- and evidently, neither does The Times.
So is The Times just a hapless victim of circumstance? Not hardly.
In March, local blogger Kevin Roderick reported , that "the Los Angeles Times has lost more subscribers in the past four years than any U.S. newspaper and it isn't even close." Why have subscribers fled this paper more than they have any other? Maybe, just maybe, the answer has to do with a perception that the paper is agenda-driven and smugly dismissive of its readers' views.
In the single biggest reader bloodletting at The Times in recent memory, the paper lost 10,000 subscribers after publishing a story in 2003 about then-gubernatorial candidate Arnold Schwarzenegger's groping tendencies. It was certainly news, but there was a widespread feeling that the paper had timed the story to influence the course of an election, and the paper paid a heavy price in canceled subscriptions.
It is possible that 10,000 people had a point? Not if you listened to the editors and columnists, who circled the wagons in classic dinosaur media fashion. Former Editor John Carroll called criticism of the story's timing "journalistic pornography." Columnist Steve Lopez labeled all 10,000 former subscribers as "apologists" for Schwarzenegger. Former Editor Dean Baquet figured they'd come back. Well, they haven't. And more have fled, including me and many of my readers.
I subscribed for 13 years but canceled in 2006 in protest after the newspaper irresponsibly published details of the legal, effective and classified SWIFT anti-terrorism program. (I still read the paper online, mainly so I can bash it on my blog. But I won't pay it one red cent.) Similarly, many of my readers tell me they canceled after subscribing for years because they genuinely believe the paper doesn't have the regard for facts that it should.
New York University journalism professor and media critic Jay Rosen has argued that The Times lacks a loyal base of subscribers in part because it fails to give readers a voice. When readers feel the paper has acted badly, they see no recourse other than cancellation. Rosen has a point.
The Readers' representative is the interface between the paper and disgruntled readers. Although she has a blog with comments, many critical comments have not been approved for publication even when they have been polite. Marc, this is a metaphor for everything that is wrong with big media. The editors claim they want feedback from readers -- but they apparently want it only on their own terms.
Valuable feedback can come from bloggers, who are, after all, among the paper's more engaged readers. But the paper's dismissive attitude toward bloggers is so supercilious, it's comical.
Times business columnist David Lazarus once contrasted the virtues of "the much-respected, widely esteemed news outlet you're currently enjoying" -- no arrogance there! -- with blogs, which, according to Lazarus, "continue sprouting like crab grass throughout the electronic ether." The late David Shaw called blogs a "solipsistic, self-aggrandizing journalist-wannabe genre." Every time I catch the paper in yet another embarrassing error, my readers fondly recall Shaw's pompous pronouncement that his columns were superior because they were reviewed by "four experienced Times editors."
Does The Times still have four editors reviewing every piece it publishes? I doubt it. How could it, with round after round of layoffs?
Yes, this newspaper is indeed covered with self-inflicted wounds. And as we watch it collapse, seemingly in its death throes, The Times continues to inflict them.
Patrick Frey blogs at patterico.com.
Was that a pig I just saw flying by my window? Must be, because it looks like we agree on how The Times has actively been contributing to its agony.
At least, almost.
So let's quickly dispose of the one area of perpetual discord. I flatly disagree with your notion that The Times' troubles are somehow ideological. For every one of your Patterico readers who still fumes at the paper -- believing it a bastion of pinko-commie, anti-governator, pro-Al Qaeda pantywaists -- there's an equal or greater number of Angelenos who will never forgive what they think is the right-wing Times that canned Bob Scheer. The problem with The Times is hardly that it isn't sufficiently fair to Republicans in an overwhelmingly and increasingly blue city and state.
Where we fully agree is that The Times -- like the entire newspaper industry -- didn't quickly enough take the Internet, and its full implications, seriously. That arrogance stems not from some out-of-touch liberalism but rather is inherent in a tribal and insular professionalism.
As NYU's Clay Shirkey brilliantly points out in his recently published "Here Comes Everybody," professional classes and castes always see the world through their own particular group lens and rather automatically disdain, diminish and write off those they consider "amateurs." Professional journalists, their editors and certainly their managers just couldn't believe that ordinary citizens, perhaps lounging around in their undies, could actually commit acts of journalism. That's how these papers ended up the rather embarrassing position of simultaneously being in the information business while nodding off during the information revolution.
As the Web was multiplying and metastasizing, The Times lumbered sleepily along, not understanding until it was (probably) too late that the world around it was rapidly transforming. Almost nobody in the newsroom understood that the blogosphere didn't mean that the news environment The Times had thrived in now had some new competitors. It meant the entire information environment itself had changed. The time-worn professional standards, protocols and means of delivery of news weren't so much challenged as they were rendered obsolete.
Even when The Times finally caught on that somethin' was happenin', Mr. Jones, the paper still didn't get it. In fact, it still doesn't. The paper's website is still mostly an electronic version of the hard-copy paper supplemented by a breathtakingly innumerable amount of fluffy blogs that -- it seems -- very few people read (with the exception of the truly excellent Top of The Ticket political blog, from which management ought to squeeze every lesson possible).
Even earlier this week, Patrick, when you and I were jawing away at this about on Warren Olney's radio program, "Which Way L.A.?,” I was struck by the words of Times Editor Russ Stanton. He vowed that as The Times moves into the future and deeper into the Web, it would be ever "more responsive" to its readers. I think you would agree that this is some pretty stale thinking left over from Web 1.0, once again marking The Times as about five years behind the curve.
The trick no longer is in better answering "the readers." Rather, it's in somehow, once and for all, accepting the hard truth that the line between news producers and news consumers, between professionals and amateurs, between writers and readers has been forever (and thankfully) erased.
Hey, Times guys: Don't waste any more time plotting how to better "respond" to whatever "readers" you've got left. Instead, you better start figuring out how to fully integrate and merge them into producing the product you have evidently yet to conceive.
Marc Cooper is associate director of the Institute for Justice and Journalism at the USC Annenberg School for Communication. He writes a politics column for L.A. Weekly and serves as editorial coordinator of the Huffington Post's Off the Bus. He blogs daily at marccooper.com.
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