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.