The LA Times: Not Just a Numbers Game

Good luck to Dean Baquet in his fight to protect his LA Times newsroom staff from further cuts. If he’s fighting for quality, he’s fighting an important fight. 

But does everyone think the status quo = quality at the Times?  In a subtle way, the 14 civic leaders who demanded that the Tribune Company stop the layoffs, suggested that the Times isn’t quite delivering to its audience:

la-times-letter-copy.jpg

If I were the Tribune Company, instead of killing the Times at 100 layoffs the whack, I would take a cue from this letter, and challenge Baquet to revamp the Times and refresh its staff.  There are far too many reporters at this paper who have forgotten how to engage an audience, who don’t want to know what their readers think, and who think the “public trust” rhetoric applies to them personally — as if they themselves were monuments.

I agree that one could argue that a newspaper in the Times’ dominant market position is a “public trust.” Kind of like a baseball team.  “Public trusts” of this nature serve two masters — owners who require profits, and their community, which requires that you live up to your responsibilities. 

But just as the Dodgers improved by replacing their inexpensive, banjo-hitting shortstop with a costlier but more productive one, the Times needs to assess whether all its position players are helping the paper earn the “public trust” designation.  The dramatic fall in circulation over the past several years suggests it is not.

The civic leaders’ letter captured one part of the problem:  Implicitly, they said today’s Times is not “thorough,” and hasn’t kept up with “the civic, political and cultural life of the region.” While it is more diverse than it used to be, there is still a DNA code shared by most Times writers that reflects an insular, arrogant, one-sided view of the world. Subject-matter expertise is spotty. Laziness, both physical and intellectual, is indulged.  So is mediocre writing. 

Some might say the foregoing is true in all mainstream newspapers.  I disagree.  For all its biases, the New York Times remains a bracing read.  (Compare the NY Times’ business section with LA’s — it should be embarassing how much better NY’s is.) The Wall Street Journal doesn’t allow reporters to cover issues they don’t understand, and its stories are edited with an awareness of its readers’ intelligence and impatience. USA Today is edited rigorously to deliver what it promises, a quick but authoritative look at the news.

Compared with these institutions, the LA Times has long seemed the impecunious cousin with a dwindling trust fund.  Tellingly, the other three papers long ago embarked on national editions, in which their “public trust” status is subjected to competitive pressures in dozens of markets. The idea of a national edition of the LA Times seems far-fetched. Who would buy it if not for its coverage of its hometown market?

The Times has been the only show in Los Angeles for decades, and it shows.  Unaccustomed to competition, the Times’ staff interprets the pressure from the Tribune Company as unfair, like cutting teachers from an overcrowded school.  “If we don’t do this job, what will happen to the children?” 

The Times needs to get over itself.  Even as far back as the early 80s, when I first started hanging around the journalistic/civic world, the Times was known as a “velvet coffin” — its reporters overpaid and underchallenged.  In the journalistic world that’s emerging, that sense of entitlement won’t survive.  Readers need to be earned, every day.  Even if you forget for the moment that young people don’t read newspapers, and even middle-aged people are dropping the habit; the serious news consumer now has many more places to go — the best news sites offered by newspapers all over the world. 

They’re going to hate this comparison (I’m not even sure I like it) but perhaps reporters need to start looking at everything they write as akin to a pop song.  A hit is a hit, and now, by adding up the page views, editors and publishers now can see clearly what’s a hit and what’s a miss. 

To make a hit, you have to be inspired, and you have to know what your readers want. I know it’s real, real important to be the “watchdog” at City Hall, for example, but if you can’t engage your readers, you’re a watchdog with no bark and no bite.

The Times should be watching what the Washington Post, another nationally-respected establishment newspaper — another “public trust” — is doing. Like the Times, the Post never managed to get much of a readership for a national print edition.  But the Post has become the pacesetter in the US for online content, and the commitment to Web journalism has started to influence the writing and editing of stories. 

News coverage at the Post is now starting to be seen as part of a continuum of engagement with readers.  Text is no longer elevated artificially above images and sounds.  Reporters regularly engage with readers in chats, and will soon be subjected to reader comments on every story — as its sports reporters are now. Even symbolically, with its Technorati and de.licio.us icons, the Post is telling the Web audience it’s for them.

Mr. Baquet, you might need a different staff of people to make the necessary transformation.  I’m with you; it’s unwise to just make cuts.  Seniority-based layoffs, buyouts and such are no way to retool the Times — they’re a meat-axe.  But you can’t just stare the Tribune people down.  You need to establish a vision for the LA Times of the next 10 years, and begin making choices based on implementing that vision. 

Right now, Mr. Baquet, you are highly popular in the newsroom because you’re playing the strong daddy, protecting the kids.  Don’t get too high off of that.  You will still need to make tough choices — creative choices, but still tough ones.

One thought on “The LA Times: Not Just a Numbers Game

  1. If they did exactly what you think they should, what do you think are the odds the paper wouldn’t be dead in five years, anyway? I don’t read it (except when there’s a Plaschke edition of the three minutes hate) so, I’m biased on the point, but it doesn’t seem like a sustainable enterprise. Is there anything they do well? Do they cover Hollywood well? I know Kaus thinks they don’t print enough gossip (which, it seems, is the entire point of covering Hollywood), but I don’t pay attention. As you point out, their business section is out and out trash. The sports page is maybe not worse, but it’s abysmal. The editorial page is awful, and the only op-eders worth reading are syndicated elsewhere. Unless you just have to know which liquor store got knocked off last night, I don’t see the point of the Times.

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