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Read it and weep: the perilous fall of the Press-Telegram

Dennis McDougal is the author of "Privileged Son: Otis Chandler and the Rise and Fall of the L.A. Times Dynasty."

Thirty years ago, Stan Leppard, a rewrite man on the city desk with phlegm in his larynx and a terminal addiction to unfiltered cigarettes, gave me the best professional advice I ever received. He delivered it shortly before I was about to file a not-very-credible story about a homeless man who lived on the streets of downtown Long Beach and planned to adopt a son.

“Hard to believe, but it does read terrific,” Stan said to me, smiling slyly. “Of course, you should never over-verify a good story.”

That Leppard offered the ironic advice with a straight face gave me pause -- and, perhaps, saved my fledgling career as a reporter at the Long Beach Press-Telegram. I did not file the homeless-man-adopts-son story. Instead, I re-reported it and found my original to be full of holes and one-sided. But there was a story, one about a mentally challenged ward of the state who had neither the right nor the resources to adopt a dog, let alone a child. As it turned out, the “over-verified” version prompted a reexamination of an unofficial county policy of simply ignoring unqualified applicants in hopes that they would simply get the message and go away.

From the old P-T, I went on to work at the Los Angeles Times, followed by stints at CNN and TV Guide and the publication of several biographies. But the journalism postgraduate school I attended for four years on the second floor of the Press-Telegram building in downtown Long Beach was the best education I ever got, and it still resonates with me every time I sit down at the computer.

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The Press-Telegram was one of several “farm teams” -- the Santa Monica Outlook and Pasadena Star-News were two others -- on the fringes of the expanding Los Angeles Times empire in the 1970s and 1980s. The P-T’s newsroom was straight out of Ben Hecht’s “Front Page”: a raucous, rowdy, nicotine-stained bullpen of hungry cubs and grizzled veterans all working to get the news out every day. Among others, the P-T produced such future Times veterans as the late media critic David Shaw, former Sacramento reporter Mark Gladstone and columnist Jill Stewart, now L.A. Weekly news editor.

I was still a reporter at the morning paper in the early 1980s when its afternoon counterpart, the Long Beach Independent, printed its final edition. Bottles came out of drawers as everyone from the managing editor to copy boys offered a toast to the passing of an institution. And now, more than a quarter of a century later, it appears that I may yet live to offer a similar toast to the P-T.

In most parts of the U.S., Long Beach would be recognized as a major city. Indeed, its population exceeds that of Miami, Minneapolis or New Orleans, each of which still has a daily newspaper. While identified with the aging Queen Mary, its harbor is one of the busiest in the world, and its airport has been home to both Douglas Aircraft and Boeing. Long Beach’s neighborhoods run the gamut, from the WASPish affluence of Naples and Virginia Country Club to an inner city that produced Snoop Dogg and Dr. Dre. The highest concentration of Cambodians outside of Phnom Penh lives in Long Beach, as does a large Latino population. It is as cosmopolitan as any city in the nation, and news worth reporting happens there every day.

But as we know all too well in 2008, newspapers are a business -- and businesses fail.

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Two years ago, the Press-Telegram quit its home of more than half a century for new digs in a high-rise overlooking the Long Beach harbor. The six-story P-T building at 6th Street and Pine Avenue is apparently destined to become condos. More than a decade earlier, the presses in the building’s basement were stilled after MediaNews Group, the P-T’s new owner, began printing the paper on the other side of L.A. County to cut costs. Simultaneously, the company began cutting jobs and wages, a downsizing that has continued ever since it bought the paper from Knight Ridder Inc.

Last month, the Denver-based chain announced its latest cost-cutting maneuver: It was combining the P-T with a neighboring daily, the South Bay Daily Breeze. The P-T (circulation: 88,000) will keep its news operation in Long Beach, and the Breeze (circulation: 65,000) will run everything else out of its Torrance headquarters. Between them, the two newspapers will lose 19 jobs, including the P-T’s editor and publisher.

The drumbeat from corporate headquarters remains the same: Ad revenue is down, costs are up and the rise of the Internet as a news source makes MediaNews middle management as nervous as cats in the proverbial room full of rocking chairs. Never mind that MediaNews’ net income rose 34% in the fourth quarter of 2007, or that the combined circulation of its 57 dailies tops 2.6 million.

Company founder, Vice Chairman and Chief Executive William Dean Singleton has left no doubt about what’s important to him in what remains of U.S. daily journalism -- profit margins. In relentlessly cutting “news” from newspapers to maintain profits, he and many of his peers have helped transform an industry. Journalists like Leppard are bought out or laid off, limiting -- or even eliminating -- the newsroom opportunities for mentoring that transforms youthful ambition into thoughtful journalism. The fact that the mistakes of reporters make it into print more frequently these days, and that newspapers increasingly shy away from investigative stories, can be traced to the slash-and-shrink policies of chief executives who vanquish veterans and intimidate greenhorns, all the while adding more “failing” newspapers to their portfolios.

The L.A. Times, the Washington Post and the New York Times are also cutting their newsroom staffs through buyouts, but the cutbacks in coverage seem less evident than in smaller papers like the P-T. But as in Major League Baseball, it’s the triple-A teams of journalism -- the Press-Telegrams -- that indicate where the future lies. Nobody buys a newspaper that is unable to report the news.

The city of Long Beach has already recognized this, complaining to Media- News that the P-T isn’t doing its job of reporting the news, and threatening to pull its legal advertising from the downsized daily. The irony -- which would never get past Leppard -- is that withholding such advertising could kill the paper, and while The Times might gain some disaffected or former P-T readers, it would be losing a farm team.

As readers, we watch suburban dailies like the P-T wither and vanish at our collective peril. Blogs and weeklies simply can’t fill the void because there’s no substitute for local reporters covering local news every day in a local newspaper. When the call goes out to “stop the presses” these days, there’s an increasing chance they won’t ever start up again -- and we’re all the lesser for it.


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