Advice for a troubled Times
FOR MONTHS, many of us have been wringing our hands about the situation at the Los Angeles Times. And last week, when Tribune Co. forced out Editor Dean Baquet, it only underscored how dire the situation is at the newspaper. As a member of the Chandler family, which founded and controlled this institution for nearly 120 years, I have found these events to be particularly troubling.
First, let me clear up misconceptions about “the Chandler family.” It is not a small group that meets at “the club” on Sundays, but rather 170 living descendants of Harry Chandler and his wife, Marian, who established the trusts that controlled The Times and its corporate cousins until the sale to Tribune in 2000. Many members of this extended family live outside Southern California; most are not named Chandler. Although many of us have a financial interest in Tribune, only eight sit on the board that makes decisions about the trust. I believe only seven, including me, have worked at The Times.
My point is that a family of this size, largely personally disconnected from this newspaper, is unlikely to act in concert toward a solution for The Times. What a shame that is.
For what it’s worth, my view -- as a shareholder, former employee and namesake of Harry Chandler, the paper’s second publisher -- is that The Times is not terminally ill, nor are most newspapers. Like radio after the arrival of TV, newspapers will evolve, redefine themselves and, yes, perhaps shrink as the Internet lures away readers.
This evolution has already produced unfortunate casualties, and it will continue to do so. The Times has weathered reduced coverage, an unprecedented turnover of key staff, a nearly 50% workforce reduction and a companywide morale decline. If we allow this to continue, we will be left without the news coverage Los Angeles needs and has come to rely on. Other local broadcast, print and Internet media can’t pick up the slack; their reporting staffs combined are a fraction of The Times’.
After decades of editorial improvement, growing readership and profitability, how did this reversal of fortunes occur? The migration of readers and advertisers to the Internet is afflicting all newspapers, but a series of regrettable mistakes accelerated The Times’ problems. I place the epicenter in the late ‘90s with the appointments of two executives/publishers, Mark H. Willes and Kathryn M. Downing, who had no media experience. They undervalued the Internet revolution and initiated a series of failed experiments that led to dissatisfaction and an exodus of editorial and business staff, myself included. Then, rather than hire new executives, the Chandler family trust board reached out to Tribune and unexpectedly sold The Times and its sister publications.
Tribune’s “larger is better” synergy plan appears to be faring no better. There have been more missteps, including circulation overstatements, a pullback from Internet initiatives and unsuccessful growth strategies from Tribune’s chief executive. Over five years, Tribune has sent three publishers to The Times with mandates for short-term profit targets that could only be achieved by staff and quality reductions. Meanwhile, the value of the Tribune stock that my family trusts received in the sale has declined by about 40%.
How can The Times recover? To offset declining revenues, it needs to reduce expenses with the least effect on its editorial mission. One idea is an a la carte newspaper -- one that delivers stock tables, sports sections or comics only to the subscribers who want them. This would require re-engineering printing and distribution systems at some expense, but it would offer substantial newsprint savings.
The time also has come to more aggressively consolidate national and international bureaus so that they serve multiple newspapers, as former Times editorial page editor Michael Kinsley suggested in these pages several weeks ago.
But it is declining readership that requires truly innovative (some would say heretical) moves. I would propose aligning editors’ compensation with the success of the sections they steward. Start by measuring the impact of certain coverage or columns, which is more complicated than simply sizing up popularity with readers. It wouldn’t be easy. But with benchmarks established, editors could be given incentives to fill their pages with must-read stories that make water-cooler conversations and e-mails buzz. These, rather than winning Pulitzers, should be the paper’s editorial goals.
In this era of multiple news sources, all next-day newspapers should shift their emphasis from duplicated news -- such as national and world news and sports -- to enterprise stories, analysis and exclusives. Weeklies such as Time, Newsweek and Sports Illustrated learned this years ago. The Times should become the indispensable source about Southern California, even if that means reducing staff in Washington and New York. Publish only columnists with original, even provocative, perspectives. Pursue more investigative pieces and assign fewer reporters to a story that 75% of readers already saw on ESPN or CNN or Yahoo.
Growing readership increasingly means reaching an audience electronically. Latimes.com has been a follower, not a leader, having turned over decision-making to the Chicago management. This needs to change.
A succession of publishers and editors who don’t know an Amber Alert from a SigAlert have been parachuted in to run The Times. The paper needs executives who understand the area. Providing great editorial coverage and civic leadership for this, the largest, most complicated urban space in the world, are tasks unsuited to outsiders whose tour of duty in the Southland may not outlast the Santa Anas.
When was the last time the paper initiated a new local event, like the Festival of Books? Or led a campaign for civic improvement? The Times can continue the proud local legacy it had under my family’s leadership, but not with executives who don’t understand and foresee the city’s needs.
Although Tribune seems unlikely to sell The Times, as that would run counter to its big-market media strategy, an independent committee of the board of directors is reviewing bids for this and other Tribune properties as you read this.
We all should be worried about the possibility of a sale to an even more profit-squeezing new owner, or some ego-driven entrepreneur with an agenda. Heck, my great-great-grandfather, Harrison Gray Otis, who bought the Times in 1882, was that type of guy, and it took half a century for my father, Otis Chandler, to undo that personal-pulpit legacy and make The Times the great newspaper it is.
Maybe it is best to look beyond corporate or private equity owners. Like professional sports teams, newspapers are trophy properties, able to create instant stature for their owners. The price is usually less-than double-digit returns. Perhaps a “benevolent billionaire” will rescue The Times. Sadly, my family trust appears not to be interested.
Another sports ownership example worth contemplating is community ownership, like that of the Green Bay Packers football team. Article I of its bylaws states, “This association shall be a community project, intended to promote community welfare ... its purposes shall be exclusively charitable.” Sound appealing? If 20% of Times readers invest $1,000, it could work. I’ll write the first check for the Los Angeles Times Community Owners LLC.
Hang in there, Times staffers and readers. There can be a winning season again for this institution, but only if the owners change, or their playbook does.