A tough place for The Times
THE late John Kenneth Galbraith once quipped that the art of politics “consists in choosing between the disastrous and the unpalatable.”
These days, it often seems like a fairly apt description of the Los Angeles Times’ increasingly uncertain future.
This week, the paper’s new publisher, David D. Hiller, asked Editor Dean Baquet to resign because they were unable to agree on The Times’ future direction and on the Tribune Co.’s demands that costs be cut by further reducing the staff. Hiller is the third publisher installed since Tribune acquired the paper as part of its purchase of the Times Mirror Co. James O’Shea, former managing editor of the Chicago Tribune -- who will take Baquet’s place Monday -- will be the fourth editor in six years.
Meanwhile, Tribune itself is up for sale and this week two Los Angeles financiers, Eli Broad and Ron Burkle, submitted bids to buy the whole company and restore the Los Angeles Times to local ownership. Entertainment entrepreneur David Geffen also remains interested in submitting a bid for The Times alone, something Tribune now says it also is willing to entertain.
It’s all become a bit of a soap opera, and, in a remark that Friday’s Wall Street Journal turned into a Page 1 headline, Baquet described the relationship between Tribune and The Times as “a tragic, bad marriage.” So, in that spirit, let’s ask the soap opera-ish question: Can this marriage be saved?
Earlier this week, Hiller sent The Times’ staff a thoughtful appraisal of the paper’s situation and of the steps that need to be taken to ensure that it go on fulfilling its responsibilities to its readers and meeting its financial obligations to Tribune’s stockholders. The key initiatives he identified centered on reinvigorating local and regional coverage, reaching out to Latino readers, young people and young families. “Our strategy,” he wrote, “is building audience in L.A. and Southern California, and being authentic and indispensable in the eyes of people here, not on the East Coast and not in Chicago. This does not say turn away from foreign and national coverage, but it would suggest focus on issues and regions of special relevance here -- like our role as a gateway to the Pacific and our leading coverage of the entertainment industry.”
Those are inarguable goals. And, if pursuing them under the direction of a publisher and an editor, neither of whom ever has lived or worked in Los Angeles, would seem to increase the degree of difficulty ... well, bigger obstacles have been overcome.
How these things play themselves out in the months ahead will depend to a great extent on how the Tribune Co.’s own uncertain future resolves itself. The company may survive as a publicly traded corporation but spin off valuable individual assets, like The Times or its major market television stations, such as KTLA, Channel 5. It may be broken up and all its parts sold off. Or it may survive in a slimmed-down and privatized form, which is the option some reports suggest its current managers favor.
But whether the Los Angeles Times returns to local ownership or is operated as part of one of these arrangements -- or even one yet to be proposed -- nearly everything that really matters about this newspaper’s future, about its ability to keep faith with its readers and their communities, will turn on the answers to two questions:
How will the paper’s proprietors, whoever they are, conceive The Times’ role in Southern California, and are they willing to divert a sufficient share of the paper’s substantial profits into the kind of reinvestment that will make the future possible?
To answer that first question, you have to understand what makes The Times unique among major American newspapers. Alone among the country’s leading papers, this one is simultaneously the most important news organization in a vast region, the Western United States, the most influential source of news in the largest and most important state in the country and the hometown newspaper of one of the world’s greatest and most important cities. At the same time, it is a paper with a national and international reach because the size, interests and sophistication of its local readership require those things. Finally, the demographic realities of the world’s most ethnically and culturally diverse region dictate special obligations when it comes to coverage of Latin America and the Pacific Rim.
No other American newspaper must aspire to meet all those obligations at the same time. These are not negotiable obligations in the minds of the paper’s readers, and, as easy as it is to blame recent declines in readership on paradigmatic shifts in media technology, the hard truth is that a significant part of that decline has come from an erratic management that has neglected one or another of these responsibilities.
All the new-versus-old media mumbo jumbo notwithstanding, the dynamic at work here is no more complicated than the economics of a corner store: You can’t keep giving people less and less and charging them the same or more for it -- no matter how fancy your packaging is. Yet that’s exactly what a strategy of newspaper management that relies mainly on cost-cutting to achieve its goals proposes to do.
In that context, a couple of the points The Times’ new publisher made in his analysis this week are well worth sharing with the paper’s readers, as well as its staff. Hiller wrote, for example, that The Times needs to do more to reach its “English-speaking Hispanic audience.” That’s certainly true, but it also needs to do more to connect with the Chinese American communities of the San Gabriel Valley and a Korean American community that is economically concentrated in the Mid-Wilshire area but residentially dispersed. It also needs to take serious notice of the numerically smaller but astonishingly successful Armenian, Russian, Persian, Pakistani and Indian immigrant communities and their Americanized children. And, as long as we’re in the business of parsing readership by ethnic background, it’s worth considering that The Times’ circulation area is home to an African American middle class that rivals that of Atlanta and to an extraordinarily loyal Jewish readership that demands sophisticated news coverage and commentary from Washington and the Middle East.
Welcome to L.A. and to the publishing reality that, across the region, you identify Times readers by their education, income and passion for news that matters to them. That news, as expensive as it may be to cover, occurs all over the country and the world, as well as in the readers’ own backyards. When readers such as The Times’ use the word “local,” they mean not only what occurs down the street but also what’s of interest to them nationally and globally.
In his analytic report to The Times staff this week, Hiller also wrote of the paper’s need to consider how to reallocate resources and reduce expenses in the period ahead. “What we do in applying our great resources to our mission and business has to follow our vision of where we are taking the business over the next five years and beyond. It is clear that some of this will require moving resources from print to online, and other growth areas. It also means continuing to reduce costs in the core print business, across every area of the company and doing so thoughtfully and strategically.”
If the Tribune Co. or its successor as owner of the Los Angeles Times continues to “reduce costs” by cutting the paper’s staff in the interests of maintaining a profit margin of 20% or better, then the only way to reinvigorate local coverage and to establish the kind of strong online presence that will guarantee the paper’s future is to stop doing something we now do for readers or to do it less thoroughly and less well, hoping that those readers just won’t mind.
Nothing is impossible, of course, but some things are highly improbable.