The Times shifts its focus to Web
Los Angeles Times Editor James E. O’Shea unveiled a major initiative Wednesday to combine operations of the newspaper and its Internet site -- a change he said was crucial to ensuring that The Times remains a premier news outlet.
O’Shea employed dire statistics on declining print advertising revenue to urge The Times’ 940 journalists to throw off a “bunker mentality” and view latimes.com as the paper’s primary vehicle for delivering news.
In his first significant action since becoming editor in mid-November, O’Shea said he would create the position of editor for innovation and launch a crash course for journalists to push ahead the melding of the newspaper and its website.
O’Shea named Business Editor Russ Stanton to the innovation post and said the “Internet 101" course would teach reporters, editors and photographers to become “savvy multimedia journalists,” able to enhance their writing with audio and video reports. He emphasized the need for speed in reforming an operation that he called “woefully behind” the competition.
The 63-year-old editor made the announcement before a standing-room-only audience of journalists in an auditorium at The Times. He said that some might have a false sense of security about the newspaper because it has continued to post substantial profit. Last year, The Times earned an estimated $240 million before taxes, an amount considered high relative to its revenue.
Automobile advertising in the print edition will be about $47 million less this year than it was in 2004, O’Shea said. Only about half that loss will be recovered with new online ads.
“For every $2 we lost,” he said, “we are recouping only about $1.”
O’Shea added later: “If we don’t help reverse these revenue trends, we will not be able to cost-effectively provide the news -- the daily bread of democracy. The stakes are high.”
The newspaper’s Web operations bring in about $60 million of The Times’ $1.1 billion in overall annual revenue.
The announcement by The Times follows an industry trend. Many newspapers are shifting resources and energy to the Web, where revenues are growing, and away from print editions, where ad dollars are shrinking.
This month, the Wall Street Journal moved most of its breaking news and comprehensive data on financial markets to wsj.com. The publication now reserves most of its print edition for more analytical stories.
The Washington Post has been among the most aggressive in its push toward the Internet. Its Web operation is largely autonomous from the paper, and its reporters are being trained to shoot video to augment stories.
Strapped with tight budgets, many publications are expanding their content by encouraging the public to contribute information. The Denver Newspaper Agency, publisher of the Denver Post and Rocky Mountain News, relies on about 6,000 public submissions a week, broken down by neighborhood zones.
The changes at The Times were driven by a committee of the paper’s journalists appointed in October by O’Shea’s predecessor, Dean Baquet, to come up with ways to improve the paper and its website.
The Spring Street committee, named for The Times’ downtown address, produced a scathing report that has been seen by only a few of the newspaper’s top editors and executives.
“As a news organization, we are not Web-savvy,” the seven-page report says. “If anything, we are Web-stupid.”
Among the impediments to growth at latimes.com that were cited or implied in the report:
* Lack of assertive leadership on the subject within The Times and at the paper’s parent, Tribune Co.
* Understaffing. The Web operation has 18 employees, a small fraction of the 200 employees at the Washington Post’s website and the 50 at the New York Times’ site.
* “Creaky” technology that has made it impossible for latimes.com to host live “chats” between readers and journalists or to let readers customize stock tables or weather reports.
* Failure to integrate the newspaper’s large news staff with the website, contributing to delays in posting news.
“We are rarely first” to post news on the Internet, the Spring Street committee found. The committee cited an instance recently when a truck carrying hay caught fire on the Hollywood Freeway, sending up a plume of smoke that alarmed commuters. “We told readers nothing of the incident until the following morning,” the committee said.
A philosophical clash between the website’s top two employees -- General Manager Rob Barrett and Joel Sappell, an assistant managing editor at the paper and executive editor of the website -- also “hampered the site’s ability to grow,” the report says. Barrett wanted the site to focus on “hyper-local” reports, to deliver Southern California readers information about their communities. Sappell argued for building “communities of affinity” rather than geography.
The report called on Times management to make Internet improvements an urgent priority. With 5.1 million unique visitors a month and 73 million total page views, latimes.com’s traffic tops most other newspaper websites. But usage trends are in the wrong direction.
Late last year, latimes.com was the 766th most active website in the world and not in the top 100 in the U.S., according to tracking service Alexa Internet. Nytimes.com was ranked 95th in the world and 21st in the country. Latimes.com users tend to spend less time on the site compared with users of other top news sites. The 11.9-minute average stay at latimes.com is only half the amount of time users spend on nytimes.com, the Spring Street report said.
Barrett said that about 77% of latimes.com viewers came from outside Southern California -- an audience that is not attractive to advertisers who want to reach local customers. The site intends to expand local coverage substantially to grab a bigger local audience, Barrett said.
In the reorganization, Barrett was promoted to the position of vice president of Los Angeles Times Media Group, charged with developing business for latimes.com and related websites. Sappell will return to the newsroom, where he will edit long-form journalism, a role in which he has overseen several award-winning projects.
Two ancillary websites will kick off the paper’s expanded Web effort. A new travel website is scheduled to be launched next month. The site will focus on Southern California and allow users to book trips -- the sort of e-commerce that newspaper sites such as signonsandiego .com initiated years ago.
Another site, Calendarlive, will be designed to help readers choose entertainment options such as restaurants, movies, concerts and clubs.