Today’s question: Are predictions of the L.A. Times’ death exaggerated, given that the paper still makes a lot of money, draws millions of readers and has a major impact on the region? Click here to read the entire week’s exchange between Cooper and Frey.
The Times as we knew it is already dead
Point: Marc Cooper
I’ll try to keep this short as today’s topic is whether or not reports of the death of the Los Angeles Times are premature.
The answer is obvious. The Times, at least as we once knew it, is not only dead, but already in a state of rapid decomposition. Its owner has become its undertaker.
Even with the lightning speed of the ‘Net, we can’t keep up with the pace of decay. In the mere five days since you and I began this public dialogue, we’ve seen the folding of at least two sections of the paper, the imminent shredding of two more, the departure of more prize-winning investigative reporters to a nonprofit website, the publication of one more aberrant “innovation” memo from management that seems written under the influence of a hallucinogen and renewed vows to keep the corporate editorial guillotine well-oiled and functioning on overtime.
And that’s just what is public. In the meantime, my e-mail inbox has filled with missives from desperate and despondent Times staffers that read like that embossed call for help on the tummy of that poor bile-spewing child in “The Exorcist.” (Do you think someone could entice Cardinal Roger Mahony to perform his civic duty by trying to banish the demons who have possessed the corner of 1st and Spring?)
It didn’t have to be this way. There was a moment, not too many years ago as a matter of fact, when The Times threatened to compete with the New York Times as the crown jewel of newspapers. But management not only misjudged the power of the Web, it also underestimated its own sophisticated readership.
A conscious decision was made somewhere along the line to be only second-best, to not take the risk for greatness and to settle for being a fat, comfortable, suburban paper that reads like it should be delivered every morning accompanied a mocha latte, a croissant and a Kenny G CD.
So goodbye to greatness. Any hope of meaningful resurrection? Or is the soul of The Times condemned to wallow in an eternal and greatly reduced, perhaps even marginal, purgatory? The complete answer is way above my pay grade, thank you very much. But there seems to a few prerequisites if The Times wishes to recover any shadow of its shriveling authority:
* Get rid of Tribune Co. Chief Executive Sam Zell. The times (lower case) demand an adventurous, bold visionary at the corporate helm who can imagine something -- anything -- other than just the bottom line. You know, like a commitment to civic duty, a passion for news, a desire to re-invent and improve journalism -- not part it out to the junk yard.
* Get used to the idea that your audience is at least as smart as you are. And stop patronizing them. Diversity doesn’t mean covering “communities of color” and reporting on them as exotic species. All those Armenians, Mexicans, Koreans and Cambodians aren’t just your readers’ neighbors. They might actually be your readers -- if you found a meaningful way to address them.
* The people of Los Angeles aren’t lobotomized provincial plops. The Times needs to be smarted-up, not dumbed-down and trashed like the disfigurement just imposed on the Orlando Sentinel by the Zellites. We hardly need a 1,000-person newsroom to crank out mental cotton candy. Invest more in reporting, not less.
Good night, Patrick. And good luck.
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.
The Times won’t be missed
Counterpoint: Patrick Frey
As we watch this paper die -- and you and I agree that it’s happening -- it’s important to understand what we’re losing: A paper that, far too often, is driven by a left-leaning agenda. I know you disagree, but -- and I say this with all warmth and respect -- you are completely out to lunch on this.
I’ve got more than five years’ worth of evidence, but don’t take my word for it. Instead, ask yourself:
* Why were 10,000 subscribers perfectly willing to believe that this newspaper was trying to throw the California recall election to the Democrats?
* Why, in a conversation with me, did a Times employee once refer to himself or herself -- I dare not even specify the gender! -- as a “closeted conservative” at the paper? (Can you imagine anyone at The Times calling himself a “closeted liberal”?) The person also gave me a guess on the percentage of Democrats in the newsroom, but then got nervous about it and asked me not to post it. (Hint: the percentage was high. And why is the conservative so nervous at this supposedly balanced and nonpartisan paper?)
* Why did a local journalist upset at Sam Zell write Kevin Roderick recently and say that “big-city liberals” should “consider un-subscribing” from this newspaper to protest Zell’s cuts? Why does he think liberals would be more upset than conservatives to see this paper go under?
The idea that The Times is not liberal is, to put it mildly, completely incredible. It reminds me of when Times columnist Tim Rutten wrote of the “mythology of liberal Hollywood.” Sure thing, Tim. Hollywood isn’t liberal, and neither is The Times. Right. That’s why conservatives in both places skulk around and look over their shoulders.
I don’t think the leftists at this newspaper are huddled together in some grand conspiracy. Instead, I suspect that the paper suffers from ideological blind spots that naturally occur when most people at the paper share similar viewpoints.
But those blind spots badly skew the paper’s coverage -- on immigration, gay marriage, abortion and a host of other hot-button issues. Marc, you attempt to deny this by claiming that the paper takes criticism from the left as well as the right. By that standard, I’m not a conservative because my readers also criticize me from both sides of the aisle. Indeed, by that standard, Bill O’Reilly really does have a “No-Spin Zone.” Everybody who buys that, raise your hand. (I see no hands.)
Yes, The Times is dying a slow death right in front of our eyes for the reasons we have discussed ad nauseam: the impact of the Internet coupled with the paper’s arrogance and aloofness. It won’t be missed.
This is a paper where even the Pulitzer Prize winners are often an embarrassment. When they’re not publishing stories based on forged documents or embroiled in ethically questionable conflicts of interest, they’re snooping into their colleagues’ e-mail or leaving silly sock-puppet comments on my blog.
The editors think the paper continues to have a large impact because it still has hundreds of thousands of subscribers. But what do those subscribers actually do with the paper? Mostly, they read the sports section or the comics. They do the crossword or the sudoku. They check their horoscope. (Yes, this ever-so-serious newspaper, whose stuffed shirts rail against pandering to readers, runs a horoscope. It sells papers.)
Readers might skim an article or two if the headline grabs them, but almost nobody is reading this paper cover to cover.
There are signs that the paper is trying to reconnect with readers. Debates like this one are healthy. I’m told the Readers’ Representative blog has started accepting more critical comments.
But it’s too little, too late. It’s a Band-Aid on a gaping chest wound. Gather ‘round and pay your respects, folks. Call the priest for the last rites, because it’s just a matter of time.
Patrick Frey blogs at patterico.com.
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