July 7, 2008
The digital unbundling of newspapers, the accelerated migration of content to the Internet, the shift and decline in traditional advertising revenues, the shattering of an information monopoly and the tectonic generational shift in news reading habits are all contributing factors to the long-term crisis of the Los Angeles Times
But the paper's short-term agony, punctuated by the announcement that another round of job cuts and a pruning of 15% of its pages are just around the corner, is attributable to a much simpler factor: good old-fashioned greed.
The last time anyone looked, The Times was churning out about an annual 20% profit -- a hell of a lot better than your current 401(k) or that fixer-upper and now unoccupied property your brother-in-law talked you into buying. But that's apparently just not enough for billionaire Tribune Co. Chief Executive Sam Zell.
Ever since he took over Tribune -- and with it The Times -- Zell has been profanely and publicly whining about how unproductive, and unprofitable, his reporters and editors are. It seems they're idly squandering their time covering trivia like the war in Iraq, the humanitarian catastrophe in Zimbabwe and the most dramatic presidential campaign in decades to be sufficiently concentrated on his precarious profit margins. They're too preoccupied with their petty concerns to sympathize with the fix Zell has gotten himself, and his company, into. A recession-driven slump in advertising and a continuing falloff in daily circulation are immediately jeopardizing service on the billions of dollars in leveraged debt he accumulated when he took over Tribune (even if only a tiny fraction of his own loot was tied up in the deal, with the bulk coming from employee-owned stock).
No question that The Times needs a business and editorial retooling, especially in the current turbulent economic and journalistic environment. In order to survive and prosper into the next decade, The Times will indeed have to make many and perhaps quite radical changes. But you don't weather that storm by first throwing overboard all the things you do the best -- along with the people who best do them (which so far has been the distinguishing characteristic of Zell's tenure).
How about beginning the strategic discussion somewhere else? Perhaps by agreeing to cut profits in half? If the rest of us boobs can manage the recession with a 2% return on money market accounts and a 25% loss in home equity, maybe Zell could eke by with, say, a few hundred million or so less.
If you want to really understand what's going on at The Times, don't bother reading any of the pontifications from professional journalism watchdogs. I recommend, instead, a close reading of Washington Post correspondent Rajiv Chandrasekaran's "Imperial Life in the Emerald City: Inside Iraq's Green Zone." The Boston Globe said that "with acuity and a fine sense of the absurd, the author peels back the roof to reveal an ant heap of arrogance, ineptitude and hayseed provincialism."
Time to end the occupation -- the one down at 2nd and Spring.
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.
What's eating the L.A. Times? It's more than greed; it's also an occasional failure to provide readers with a full, fair and accurate picture of the facts.
I'm only an amateur press watchdog, as opposed to these professional watchdogs you warn readers to ignore, Marc. But from my distinctly nonprofessional viewpoint, it seems to me you are focused on a different question than the one that most concerns me. Your question seems to be, what makes a newspaper financially viable?
Your solution: Get some billionaire to forego a few hundred million dollars, and get the stockholders to agree to cut profits in half.
Easier said than done.
But I think we should focus on a related but more critical question: What makes a newspaper great? Money and readership are indicators of greatness, but they do not equal greatness. Greatness comes from pursuing the truth. At its best, The Times has done that. The paper's investigation of the Martin Luther King Jr.-Harbor Hospital was a shining example of what this paper can achieve.
But there have been instances when I believe the paper has fallen woefully short. When it does, it costs the paper credibility, and that has nothing to do with Tribune.
For example, the paper ran a front-page story last month alleging that Alex Kozinski, chief judge of the U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals, had a website with pornographic images, including a "half-dressed man cavorting with a sexually aroused farm animal." The obvious suggestion was the video depicted bestiality in a prurient manner.
Nonsense. In fact, the video is humor. It portrays a man who is probably trying to relieve himself while trying to fight off an aroused donkey with one hand as he holds up his pants with the other. It has been shown on television and is available on YouTube. Most of the material on the judge's website, as it turned out, was similarly intended as humorous and not lewd. Many readers I know who viewed the actual material felt deceived by The Times' article. They felt that the newspaper tried to make the story seem splashier than it really was.
You can't blame that on Tribune.
Marc, the paper recently had to retract an article that was based on forged documents. Not only that, but the article also incorrectly claimed that one man had done time for drug offenses. How does that happen? I don't know -- and I don't see any desire on the part of the editors to explain it.
How can you blame Tribune for that?
The examples go on and on.
When a newspaper headline says that Californians "narrowly reject" gay marriage -- and readers must scour the story to learn that the margin is actually 19 points in favor of a proposed state constitutional amendment that would ban the practice -- something is wrong.
When the newspaper misquotes a respected U.S. attorney on the central fact of a story -- and he complains about it without success -- something is wrong.
When a columnist claims that documents don't exist, when they actually do; or claims that the vice president said something, when he actually didn't; or claims that the U.S. attorney general refused to say something, when he actually did, something is wrong.
These sorts of things are not the hallmark of a great newspaper.
And you can't blame any of them on Tribune.
Patrick Frey blogs at patterico.com.
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