Is it Something About LA?

LA Observed links to a Crain’s Chicago Business piece documenting the latest outburst of investor negativity toward the Los Angeles Times and its dragging effect on the Tribune Company. A few pertinent grafs:

“They’ve been throwing anything they can think of at that paper and nothing seems to work,” says media analyst Edward J. Atorino of New York-based Benchmark & Co. “Wall Street likes the company, and we love Dennis, but if results don’t start improving . . . it’s going to be merciless.”

For Tribune executives, the Los Angeles problem is “critical, and it’s the most troubling kink in the turnaround story,” says Eric McKissack, CEO of Chicago-based Channing Capital Management LLC, which holds more than 600,000 Tribune shares. “It’ll be very difficult to turn the company around without turning the Times around….”

“When Tribune bought the Times, there was a sense that it was an underachieving paper that could be turned around with the right management,” says James Goss, an analyst with Barrington Research Associates Inc. in Chicago. “Well, it’s six years later, and I think they’re beginning to understand why Times Mirror couldn’t figure it out.”…

I don’t even have to look. Patterico, Hugh Hewitt, Michelle Malkin…Crain’s just made their day. The Times is getting its just desserts, that liberal, out-of-touch bastion of political bias. I’m sure they’re dancing across their laptops tonight.

But, just to be contrarian, let me propose something that the Times-bashers in the blog world might not have considered. Could it be the problem is not some failing at the Times — not its quality, not its politics, not its ad rates?

Could it be… Los Angeles?

What is the Los Angeles economy about, nowadays?

  • International trade, an amorphous global enterprise that happens to transit through LA’s sea-and-airports, barely stopping long enough to add significant value to the local economy. The professionals engaged in international trade are perhaps more interested in the Asian Wall Street Journal or the Financial Times of London. As long as the ships, planes, trains and trucks keep moving, that’s all they need to know about Los Angeles.
  • Real estate, which is all about hot neighborhoods and new “edge city” developments, not the city as a whole.
  • Tourism, which is about generating feature stories outside the LA market to draw visitors in. Tourism is also not a source of high-wage jobs.
  • Entertainment media, for which the Los Angeles Times will never be most important source of news. Arguably this is a failing of the newspaper’s editors over the decades who looked down at “Tinseltown,” while the New York Times and Wall Street Journal assigned top reporters to the beat. Now entertainment news is so ubiquitous, the Times has no leverage to grab the lead it should never have relinquished in the first place.

Add in the fact that Los Angeles has some of the highest rates of illiteracy — in any language — in the nation. That’s no good for selling newspapers.

We’ve got people who buy things. Los Angeles is at the center of one of the two biggest markets in the nation. That should be the good news, and is probably the basis for the high ad rates the Times tries to charge. But now we’ve got an exceedingly diverse population, not the broad, general interest market for which the Los Angeles Times was designed.

When the Times was so thick that comedians joked about the Sunday Times causing hernias, those pages were mostly filled with mid-market department store ads, placed by stores that, like the Times, tried to appeal to everyone. Most of those stores are out of business now.

But that’s not all of it. Something’s gone out of Los Angeles — confidence, a sense of identity, a belief in the future. A thriving newspaper is, at some level, a product of boosterism. Los Angeles has a lot of paid advocates, but few boosters. That’s a big change, historically.

Way back in about 1989 or so, my friend Joel Bellman wrote an op-ed for the now-defunct Herald-Examiner, in which he said (as I recall) 1984 was Los Angeles’ “last good year.” At the time, I worked for Mayor Tom Bradley, so of course I challenged his implication that the mayor wasn’t a boon to the city anymore, and saw political danger in it. But I’ve thought of that essay many times since it ran.

Los Angeles has had a tough couple of decades since the triumph of the 1984 Olympic Games. Once upon a time, we accepted progress as a given. Nowadays, we accept decline and the intractability of our problems. Schools, traffic, housing costs, the environment — who is telling us these things can get better? Well, sure, lots of people say so, especially when there’s an election coming up. But who really believes?

For many Angelenos, it’s just a matter of how much longer they can hang in there, or how well they can insulate themselves from what everyone else seems to be suffering from. People who feel that way really don’t really want to read the newspaper. Opening it up each morning is too depressing. They want to keep their world nice and small, and manageable. A cocoon.

The Times does almost nothing to build this community’s confidence in itself. Maybe that’s too much to ask of it. Probably, most reporters and editors would quit if their publisher told them boosting Los Angeles’ future was now their job description. But I don’t see the Times recovering until Los Angeles recovers a sense of itself as special; and if the Times wants to play a role in that, it would certainly be in the institution’s self-interest.

8 thoughts on “Is it Something About LA?

  1. I think you’re over-reaching to attribute malaise at the Times to malaise in the entire city. I think the days of the monolithic city with a monolithic newspaper are going away. To take the pulse of the city, you should put your fingers on the various community-oriented blogs, starting with blogging.la, and my own blog, West L.A. Online.

  2. Good post. We have no home-grown advocates here. After years of being told what Los Angeles is not (not New York and not San Francisco and not a city, etc.) by ex-patriates that have a “just-passing-thru” mindset and never drive east of La Brea, Angelinos are starving for a local voice that actually likes living here and sees beyond celebrities.

  3. Bravo! Well said, indeed the papers failure is a symptom of it’s inability to feed something positive into this city. Apropos that you mention Mayor Bradley, but 1984 was not the last “good year” for Los Angeles, nor is Bradley the last great elected booster of this city. Have you not felt the wave of change Villaraigosa has brought to City Hall? Los Angeles has a bright future with this mayor, the times just needs to add to this energy. The blogs certainly have; laobserved, curbedla, lavoice etc.

  4. Matthew — I certainly don’t believe the ’84 has to be LA’s last good year, but do think a malaise set in after the major aerospace and defense contracts revealed just how dependent LA’s economy was on the Cold War. While I am optimistic about Mayor Villaraigosa because of his energy and enthusiasm, I also believe LA’s problems, Southern California’s problems, are not entirely in the city government’s power to fix. Economically, the city primarily affects real estate development within its boundaries, and can affect the quality of life, especially public safety. Villaraigosa is brave and correct to take on the issue of LAUSD’s governance. But beyond that, most of the policy and governance changes need to come from the state government, which seems institutionally clueless about economic development.

    Underneath all that is the “just passing through” mentality that Jim 7 cites. Voter turnout is abysmal. Powerful state legislators generally are unknown to most citizens, who keep electing them without holding them accountable. Both parties play to the obsessions of their most extreme members, who aren’t concerned about the economy but instead fixate on social issues. But they can do that because the voters in the middle are so apathetic.

    The Times could contribute to arousing the public about the potential of Los Angeles, but the public’s got a role, too. We get the kind of government we deserve, said Jefferson (or was it Kurt Vonnegut?).

    Jim: I love community-oriented blogs, but their success illustrates my point. Their strength is that they are hyperlocal. But that also limits their reach — at least at this moment. Do you see a revival of LA’s economy or civic culture spurred by local blogs? I hope you’re right, and think it’s possible, and I’d love to hear your ideas on how.

  5. I disagree that there is any city-wide decline. LA seems to keep chugging along despite the various dire predictions over the years. But I agree with the first half of the post and would expand on it. Not so many people realize LA’s status in international trade; most think of LA as Tinseltown or La-La Land. Maybe the LAT should become more sophisticated about what really makes this city tick.

  6. Excellent post. The Times has been treating the departure of significant chunks of our economy with a ho-hum sort of “business-as-usual” approach. Critical parts of the economy rely upon banking, insurance, securities, and the energy business, and they’re gone away to places like London , Georgia, and North Carolina.

    Part of the problem is that journalists tend to look upon business as a necessary evil, and that makes its movement away from LA almost a mixed blessing.

  7. First of all, San Francisco has been a beloved, mostly higher-income city for eons and yet their daily paper has been a piece of bilge for eons.

    I think the biggest challenge facing the LA Times is that it’s located in a region that’s growing poorer and less literate as each day passes.

    Do most people at the Times worry about that? If they do, then they likely believe it’s just a matter of not having created enough feel-good programs and happy-face handouts (fancy new school campuses for apathetic ESL kids!, lavish initiatives for the downtrodden, on Skid Row, for example!!). And, of course, when that doesn’t really change current downward trends (as is almost guaranteed), they’ll just pick up their suitcases and move away.

    So in plain terms, does any city in the Third World support and nurture a TRULY fine major newspaper? Will LA be any different?

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