Waiting for Eli

The Los Angeles Times is in the metaphysical quandary of covering its own crack-up, as its owners fight about money, and whether they can make more of it by cutting back on the newspaper's budget, or spinning it off.

carrot.jpgIt's got to be tension city on Spring Street, but one Timesman is having fun; Steve Lopez, author of two columns this week in which he tries to get local billionaires to adopt his lil' puppy. In today's story, Lopez tries to win over former mayor and longtime plutocrat philanthropist Richard Riordan by pulling a shift as a waiter at The Original Pantry, which Riordan owns.

Lopez's piece morphs into a contemporary version of "Waiting for Godot" — Waiting for Eli (Broad) — with the ex-mayor gesturing to an empty table he'd reserved for a meeting with his affluent pals.

ESTRAGON:

Give me a carrot. (Vladimir rummages in his pockets, takes out a turnip and gives it to Estragon who takes a bite out of it. Angrily.) It's a turnip!
VLADIMIR:

Oh pardon! I could have sworn it was a carrot. (He rummages again in his pockets, finds nothing but turnips.) All that's turnips. (He rummages.) You must have eaten the last. (He rummages.) Wait, I have it. (He brings out a carrot and gives it to Estragon.) There, dear fellow. #

(Oh, wait, that wasn't in the Lopez piece. I got confused because The Original Pantry puts vegetables on every table. Here's what Riordan said…)

"Come on," Riordan called out over lunch, making a plea to his no-show friends. "The city needs a home-grown owner of the L.A. Times."

Lopez uses a winemaking metaphor to describe the Times' business problems:

The paper, as you may know, is owned by the Tribune Co., whose leaders have given no indication that they will go down as giants in American publishing history. By that I mean that if they owned a wine company with a 20% profit margin and wanted to bump it up to 22%, they would never think of improving the wine. They would instead put less wine in the bottle and slash the promotion budget to save costs.

Then, Lopez makes his pitch:

For two thin quarters, you get more than 900 reporters and editors who take seriously their mission to inform, entertain, and hold people in power accountable, including their own bosses. Who owns the paper matters. It matters almost as much as what the owner values, and the near-sighted hog butchers in Chicago are threatening another round of cuts that could diminish the power and purpose of a great local institution for the sake of kicking the stock up two points.

I'm not arguing in favor of the cuts. But Lopez's value proposition ain't what it used to be.

Yes, for two thin quarters you get all of what he says in one package — one wine bottle.

But included in the price of an online hookup — not a trivial cost, but one that millions now equate to a utility bill — you get all of that expertly assembled content, plus the content of the Times' local competitors, national competitors, foreign competitors, eyewitnesses, opinion mavens, and the unfiltered voices of ordinary people, not all of them trustworthy, but all striving to get readers' attention. And no need to recycle the bottle. The content just flows into your glass, when you want it.

If the Times dies, will all those 900 reporters and editors stop plying their trade? I don't think we need to assume that. They won't all be working for the Times, to be sure. But if they still want to inform, entertain and hold people in power accountable, they'll be able to continue somewhere. Many will continue with whoever takes the Times fully online, filing stories on a schedule and in a form that suits the new medium. Not all the cuts have to be taken from the content. You can save a lot of money if you don't use so much paper, ink and delivery truck fuel.

A business model that sustains the same supply of news content online that is currently available offline remains a work in progress, and a process of trial and error — so much more interesting than the dreary stories of feuding Tribune Company board members.

One factor that writers at the Times might not like is the competition from many online writers willing to work for little or no direct pay. All of that will figure into the evolution of the information products and brands that — inevitably — will replace the Times as we know it today.

Little wonder why the billionaires' table at Riordan's hash house was still empty when the curtain fell. If I were them, I'd wait too.

3 thoughts on “Waiting for Eli

  1. “they’ll be able to continue somewhere.”

    True enough. But they won’t all be assembled in one place, which I’d argue is one of the benefits of the paper (on- or offline version).

    Look at the benefits of the Baseball Toaster; we get Jon’s DT, Bob’s Griddle, Bronx Banter, etc., etc. all conveniently located at one site. It’s why we all keep blogrolls, too; so that we have the things we want to read within easy reach.

    It’s as much a reader/user convenience model as it is anything else.

  2. It’s hard to foresee what will happen. Local ownership, while attractive from a PR standpoint, is no panacea. The smart thing for the Times to do would be to commit itself to discovering an online model that would allow the institution enough profit to maintain the same broad scope of coverage.

    But…I guess I don’t feel the synergies of the LA Times’ reporters all being in one place. The paper hasn’t had a “voice” for a long time, and seems to have no particular connection with the city or region. If the Times broke off the sports, Calendar, Home and its op-ed pages into four separate entities with four distinct brand names, it wouldn’t seem like much of anything had changed. There’s a tone/style to other big papers like the NY Times, WS Journal, USA Today, even the crummy SF Chronicle, that the LA Times has lacked for at least 20 years.

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