Wednesday, October 11, 2006

Can the L.A. Times Ever Be a Truly National Paper?

Michael Kinsley served as editorial page editor at the Los Angeles Times a year or so back, and he published an intriguing insider's look at the future of the newspaper on Sunday. Kinsley's a vivid and humorous writer, and relates the story of how he couldn't get a copy of the paper when he was on a freeway road trip in the San Fernando Valley. The Starbucks he visited carried the New York Times, of course, and Kinsley's coffeehouse visit illustrates the ironic challenge the L.A Times faces in fulfilling its aspirations to be a truly national journalistic powerhouse:

The Los Angeles Times is a collection of mostly superb journalists who on many days put out the best newspaper in America. But what is the point of publishing a national-quality newspaper if it can't be obtained in Thousand Oaks, let alone Washington or New York? Tribune Co. is right that you don't need 1,200 journalists, or even 900, to put out a paper for Los Angeles County. Nor do you need a good website. (And the Times' — through no fault of the people currently running it, who do their talented best with little encouragement from management — is the worst of any major paper.) But why did Tribune pay $8 billion for the Times-Mirror papers in 2000 if its ambitions were so modest?

This won't be a problem for long. National-quality journalists who work for the L.A. Times, attracted by good salaries and great editors (first, John Carroll and now Dean Baquet), endure the frustration of not being read by the people they write about. If money keeps getting tighter and the paper's ambitions keep getting narrower, they will leave if they can, or won't come to work in L.A. in the first place. Then The Times will be an adequate provincial paper like the Chicago Tribune, and the tension of being prettier than the boss' daughter will be resolved.

My own departure from the L.A. Times does not in any way illustrate this dilemma. An apparatchik anointed by Chicago to be publisher, named Jeffrey Johnson, accepted my invitation to have a discussion about my role and then discussed his view that my services were no longer desired. Why? I still don't know, exactly. But there are plausible theories, none having to do with money. Jeff let me go so artfully that I was back in my own office before I realized that I'd been canned. Later, he banned my column from the paper too. But since then, Jeff apparently went native (to use the phrase from Friday's Page 1 story), sided with the editor in opposing the latest round of cuts, and now he's been fired too. It's like the French Revolution: You guillotine me, then someone else guillotines you. Sorry, Jeff.

L.A. Times journalists are not entirely blameless for the chaos and carnage. Journalists know how to stage a great hissy fit. And I'm not sure a fit was really called for in the initial staff reductions. On the editorial page (I can reveal, from the safety of hindsight) we initially had 15 people producing 21 editorials a week! So now cries that Tribune Co. has moved from cutting fat to cutting bone ring a bit hollow.

The other issue that ignited flames of self-righteousness in my colleagues was any attempt to integrate The Times into the Tribune chain, or to achieve economies of scale by sharing costs. This sensitivity seems especially shortsighted — first, because logic was completely on Tribune's side. (Why should one company be paying four or five reporters to cover the same one-person beat?) And second, because in any merger or pseudo-merger of Tribune papers, the Los Angeles Times would clearly come out on top.

In fact, there may be no better way to preserve The Times' role as a major newspaper (if that is of any interest to its owners). These days, on the one hand, thanks to the Internet, any newspaper can be a national newspaper. On the other hand, near universal availability of the New York Times print edition makes the traditional role of a regional paper like the Los Angeles Times superfluous.

But now imagine the Tribune chain as a single newspaper with separate editions in each of its cities. Call it the National Tribune. Or the papers could keep their separate identities, but carry a "Tribune" insert or wraparound with national and international news. This paper would start out with towering dominance in two of the nation's top three markets (Los Angeles and Chicago) and a solid position, via Newsday, in the largest (New York). It would even have a toehold in Washington (thanks to the Baltimore Sun). All this, and Orlando too.

Like the British papers, this new national paper could go after a demographic slice of the market instead of a geographical one. It could aim for the currently unoccupied sweet spot between USA Today and the New York Times, or it could take on the New York Times directly.

I assumed that Tribune Co. must have had something like this in mind when it paid a premium for the Times-Mirror papers. But apparently it had something else in mind, or nothing at all.

And then there is the website. Any newspaper that wants to survive needs a good one, but the Los Angeles Times needs a good one more than any paper in the country. Why? Two reasons. First, because it has national aspirations (or used to) with no national distribution. Of the five "national" newspapers — the New York Times, Wall Street Journal, USA Today, Washington Post and Los Angeles Times — the L.A. Times is the only one you cannot obtain in the nation's capital. Being obtainable in some form is obviously essential to any plan for being obtained.

But mere obtainability isn't enough. People outside of Los Angeles need a reason to read The Times. Sheer excellence (of which there is plenty) is one reason, but probably not enough.

The Washington Post is also adamantly local in its distribution, but it has a huge national readership online because people want to be in on the conversation in the nation's political capital. People read the New York Times in part because it is published in the financial capital.

Los Angeles is the capital of the increasingly dominant infotainment-media-celebrity complex. Broaden your scope to California generally and you can throw in high technology as well. The L.A. Times should be the diary of this capital. Often it is. But it has to display its savvy as well as rely on it. In 2006, that means having a website second-to-none, technologically and in terms of content. Having a website that is second to almost everybody suggests that you do not have your finger on the pulse.
Read the whole thing. The context for the article of course is the ongoing turmoil at Tribune Company, which came to a head earlier this year when the Chandler family publicly called for the breakup of the firm.

I take a great deal of interest in the future of the Times. The paper's been a foundation of my intellectual development since 1984, when I started reading the newspaper on a daily basis (I decided to become a political scientist after reading numerous articles quoting such-and-such politlcal scientist at such-and-such university). Today, I assign a news analysis notebook as my semester writing project in my American government courses. I honestly can't imagine living without the Times.

It's interesting that one can't buy a hard copy of the paper in Washington, D.C., although Kinsley needs to provide more specific indicators as to why the Times' web page is inferior. One of the biggest criticisms of web journalism today (especially among bloggers) focuses on the New York Times and its darned subscription firewall for "premium" content on the editorial pages. Further, the Wall Street Journal charges home-delivery subscribers and extra $49 a year for online acccess, which makes the bulk of that paper's exceptional work essentially off-limits for non-subscribers.

As for the online version, I don't know enough about web design to really say, but I get good mileage out of the web content of the L.A. Times. And as Kinsley notes, the paper's got some superstar journalists with national reputations (Ronald Brownstein, among others), and in recent years the paper's won more Pulitzers than the New York Times (at least right after the Jason Blair scandal).

The Los Angeles Times needs to settle its outstanding ownership issues with Tribune Company and work on doing exactly what Kinsley expects -- to fully establish the paper's national presence and thus decisively confirm its national journalistic aspirations.

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