Los Angeles

It Was the Worst Times, It Was the Even Worse Times

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The building's almost as boring as the paper.

Faster than the pot can call the kettle black, the Times of New York takes a gander at the Times of Los Angeles and decides that it sucks.

Los Tiempos de Nueva York's Jeremy W. Peters finds disgruntled readers and disgruntled former employers in shocking agreement that everything was better when they were younger:

In the sidewalk cafes, coffee shops, hair salons and studio lots of this sprawling metropolis, the notion that The [Los Angeles] Times remains one of the best newspapers still in business is a foreign one.

"When I came here back in '74, it would take me all day to read the paper. Now it takes me 10 minutes — tops," said Quintin Cheeseborough, 57, who is self-employed and comes to the Los Angeles Central Library occasionally to read The Times. On a recent morning, he was reading The Financial Times and The Wall Street Journal, but not The Los Angeles Times…

Since The Times was sold to Tribune, its newsroom staff has been cut in half. For many Angelenos, the downsizing is just one more sign that their city is losing stature…

And what Tribune did to local coverage after acquiring the paper only reinforced those concerns.

Times bureaus and printing facilities in Orange County and the San Fernando Valley once employed hundreds of people to publish separate editions, each with a locally tailored front page.

John S. Carroll, a former Times executive editor, recalled that each of those operations was like a separate paper. "It was like going to a newspaper in a medium-size city," Mr. Carroll recalled of visiting there. "It was really something."

Those operations are no more. Breaking local news no longer appears on the front page, because to save money it moved up its deadlines and moved late-breaking local, national and foreign news to a separate section.

The paper's absence in the community is felt in ways beyond what it no longer covers. The Chandler family, apart from its role in city commerce and politics, was also a cultural force in Los Angeles.

"The intertwinement with the community was much greater when the Chandlers owned the paper, with their charitable contributions, their contributions to the arts," said Leo Wolinsky, who left the paper in 2008 after holding a number of top jobs there, including executive editor. "If you walk around downtown L.A., The Los Angeles Times and the Chandler name is on everything. When the Tribune Company came, that got cut back severely."

At Columbia Journalism Review, Lauren Kirchner says the East Coast Times is short on evidence against its California namesake:

A halving of weekday circulation since 2000? That decline isn't surprising, considering the changes to news reading habits in the past decades, and it doesn't necessarily mean that the paper's readers all think it's terrible. A letter of complaint from the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors about an ad that appeared on the paper's front page? Everyone who has worked at a newspaper knows that someone's always sending in a letter of complaint about something. A handful of middle-aged readers who say their hometown paper "ain't what it used to be"? Show me an institution somewhere, anywhere, that doesn't inspire this kind of grumbling.

I wish nothing but misfortune on the L.A. Times and its employees, but I agree that this NYT piece is thin soup.

Having bored another reader to death, Tim Rutten carries the body to his "spiderhole."

In the great newspaper tradition of cutting from the bottom, start with that paean to the good works of the Chandler family. While I'm glad to see erstwhile Times folks discovering the virtues of their former patrons, it's a real larf to hear it after years in which the Chandlers were routinely denounced around the building as fanatical Nixonian cheapskates redeemed only by the late Otis Chandler – who was by contrast loved for his efforts to transform the Times from a "regional" (i.e. influential, partisan and deeply involved in the life of Southern California) paper into a "national" paper (that is, a New York Times wannabe with an overpaid staff). As Tim Rutten, the Tor Johnson of Spring Street columnists, wrote in 2007, when the Chandlers were considering reclaiming their stake in the paper:

As someone who worked for Otis and knew him, let me say that the qualities that made him an admirable leader were precisely the things that made him different from the rest of his family. This bid is being made in the best traditions of the rest of his family and is essentially a scheme for further enriching themselves and sticking the rest of Tribune's stockholders with the capital gains taxes the Chandlers will, of course, avoid. They are as they always have been, less a family than an organized appetite.

The trotting out of John Carroll, the eminence neigeuse generally considered the last honorable man to run the Times, is a little disconcerting within the context of blaming Tribune for the downfall. Trib and the Chandlers agreed on the sale of the paper in March 2000. Carroll became editor in April. The Tribune deal closed in June. Effectively, Carroll's entire tenure was under Tribune, and he has as much ownership of that precipitous circulation decline (maybe—more on that in a moment) as Chicago does.

I say this not just to smash another icon beloved by the drones of Spring Street. Carroll has positive culpability for the paper's godawful online operation, which he put under the control of dunderheads and shielded from all possible innovation, with the result that by the latter half of the last decade latimes.com was a hard-to-use laughingstock. That changed dramatically in recent years, under the leadership of Meredith Artley and Sean Gallagher, but by that point Carroll was long gone and many precious years had been lost. The kindest way to describe John Carroll's tenure is that it included some very successful Pulitzer fishing trips that were paid for with the paper's future.

I'd like to see them do THIS with a Kindle!

As for what's eating the Times today, Kirchner is right that people are always grumbling. (Though it's not true of every institution: When was the last time you heard anybody but libertarians bellyaching about the Children's Television Workshop?)

More to the point, there's always a stark difference between stated and revealed preference when people start griping about their local paper. Invariably readers will say they want more in-depth news about important issues, and invariably they won't read that news when it appears. Right now, seven out of the 10 most read stories at latimes.com are sports, and the most emailed list includes pieces on Star Wars Lego models, Jackie O's hat, and "Food depression: Eating bad may make you sad." (This is not to disparage any of these stories. The L.A. Times is a chronically leaden and humorless paper, and anything that keeps it light is to be welcomed.) If the serious journalism folks like Mister Quintin Cheeseborough say they want were the key to reviving the L.A. Times, the paper's excellent coverage of the Bell compensation scandal would have reversed its circulation decline.

But it's not clear any kind of content change would make a difference. At the Times I used to check in with the circulation phone-bankers to get feedback from readers who had either canceled or started subscriptions. As it turned out, there was no feedback. Content was almost never cited as a reason to cancel. No anti-Israel bias, no pro-Israel bias, no left-wing agenda, no firing of Bob Scheer. By an overwhelming lead, "delivery problems" was the most frequent reason given for cancelling the paper. After that came "moved," "get the news online or through TV," or other non-editorial factors. Only one—"Don't have time to read the paper"—could be considered a de facto, though unspecific, critique of the paper's content.

And when there is feedback, it's generally not something the newsroom can do much about. A big marketing survey conducted shortly before I arrived asked participants to name their complaints with the paper. The most common answer: "You shouldn't have gotten rid of Garfield."

The first name in news.

As that "delivery problems" line suggests, the Times' trouble isn't so much its content as that it is run by people who don't know anything about the newspaper business. I'm not talking about selfless dedication to newsgathering or solemn invocations of the journalismisms. I'm talking about maximizing return from your monopoly operation. Current publisher Eddy Hartenstein is a self-regarding buffoon who tries to juice the game with advertising stunts (like a hoo-larious fake news piece on Page 1 last year) rather than by mining local businesses for the ad sales that will, for a few more years, continue to pay the big bills. Two years ago I canvassed every store owner on Larchmont Blvd. to see how many had ever been approached, in person or by phone or online, by an L.A. Times ad sales rep. The answer: Big Fat Zero!

The nixing of the local section and the early deadline for the A section (described by Peters above) continue Hartenstein's pattern of bad improvements. Either you take the big revenue hit of nixing the print edition entirely (still not really feasible) or you commit to making the print edition valuable. Right now even the best editorial work goes into a print package that is saying to the world, "Look at us! We're doing the same old thing, but now we're doing it half-assed!"

Weirdly, the L.A. Times has gotten a little of its mojo back in the last year or so, with the Bell story and the coverage of LAUSD teacher effectiveness being particularly laudable pieces of work. Peters doesn't mention it, but The New York Times is making a serious push into the L.A. Times' home turf, and good luck to them. But that zero-sum conflict alone suggests the dilemma of the legacy media. You may do everything wrong and go out of business. But you may do everything right and still go out of business.

NEXT: Looters and Leviathan: Hobbes Turned Upside Down

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  1. Holy shit, TC. I’ll have more to comment on this around noon tommorrow when I’m finally through reading it.

    1. Its just a journalist bitching about the politics of the journalism business.

      1. With all the brevity of Edward Gibbon.

      2. Ooooo, can we have a double brandy and a licorice rollie too!

    2. Yes, I really think the article could have ended after the mention of Quintin Cheeseborough. After that it was just blah,blah, blah.

  2. Quintin Cheeseborough

    Interesting factoid: Quintin Cheeseborough’s older brother, Charles E. Cheeseborough III, shortened his name and went on to found a popular chain of restaurants catering to children and their parents in the 70’s. “It was actually my idea, but I never saw one fucking dime,” says Cheeseborough of his brother’s success.

    1. Another factoid: Because his uncle decided to stay in Ireland, a part of the family never changed it’s name. I understand he has a cousin in charge of municipal government in a town located in County Cork.

      1. That cousin was also the only libertarian to serve in his capacity on the Emerald Isle. Although he ran on the Sinn Fein ticket, his bona fides came under fire when it was noted he wore a top hat and used a pince-nez, otherwise known as a “double monacle.”

        1. God damn it, I didn’t see this one before I posted.

    2. Get your facts straight, bub. Quintin’s brother retained their original Irish name, McCheese, and successfully ran for mayor in a medium-sized town. He’s the one that takes care of their fat retarded brother who was dyed purple in a tragic and mysterious colloidal silver accident. Appallingly, his expression was also frozen into a permanent grimace.

      1. No, no. See above. The infamous Mayor McCheese was in his uncle’s line. McCheese was therefore his cousin.

        It is true that there was another Cheeseborough brother who had his 15 minutes of fame, though few remember it today. Todd O. Cheeseborough was briefly the CEO and spokesperson of a popular maker of snack products, until being forced out in a hostile takeover engineered by a now legendary corporate raider.

        1. I’ve partied with Chester. He is a fucking maniac, let me tell you. This one time we both did some orange lines off this Asian hooker’s buttcrack, and then Chester picked her up, stuffed his snout into her pussy, and ran around screaming “I’m going to wear you like a hockey mask!”

          True story, man.

          1. True story, man.

            Oddly enough, I actually believe you.

            1. indisputable

  3. And now, a word from another satisfied Evelyn Wood customer:

    “When I came here back in ’74, it would take me all day to read the paper. Now it takes me 10 minutes ? tops,” said Quintin Cheeseborough

  4. Photos of LAT HQ from the year 2012:

    http://img.timeinc.net/time/ph…..oit_01.jpg

    http://images.cdn.fotopedia.co…..-image.jpg

  5. “I wish nothing but misfortune on the L.A. Times and its employees,”

    I LOL’d when i read that.

    1. That one, and also this one got a lol:

      Tim Rutten, the Tor Johnson of Spring Street columnists

      1. I think some of the cops Radley Balko writes about learned proper weapons handling from watching Tor’s performance in Plan 9 from Outer Space.

        1. The hilarious gun-to-head bit was the immortal Paul Marco. Tor’s main contribution was the creation of the character that would eventually reach its apogee with Butkus’s portrayal as “Mongo.”

          1. I was Alex Karras, not Butkus.

  6. Do you see what happens when you cancel Garfield? This is what happens, Larry. See what happens, Larry? See what happens when you cancel Garfield? This is what happens, Larry!

    1. If you owned a paper and ran the Garfield strip, would it be legal to photoshop out Garfield’s text to make it “Garfield without Garfield” and run that? Or would that be illegal and cause you to get sued into oblivion?

      Because if a paper ran “Garfield without Garfield” I would subscribe.

      1. But why would you do that to Garfield? He couldn’t eat lasagna and say “yum!” Or make light of Jon’s problems with women.

        BTW, in all seriousness, I wonder if you’d be able to get away with that as an allowable parody under the fair use doctrine of copyright law.

        Kind of like the Family Circus stuff, which was mentioned in this blog by someone a week or so ago.

        http://theotherfamily.com/view.php?g=1

      2. I’m more a fan of Marmaduke Explained.

  7. Fuck, Tim. I’m tired of these sugar-coated articles. Why don’t you tell us how you really feel about your former employer.

  8. Two years ago I canvassed every store owner on Larchmont Blvd. to see how many had ever been approached, in person or by phone or online, by an L.A. Times ad sales rep. The answer: Big Fat Zero!

    I have probably never spent ten minutes, total, thinking about the newspaper business model, but it does seem that a business which derives most of its revenues from ad sales would make an active effort to sell ads.

  9. Q: Why won’t cannibals eat former L.A. Times employees?

    A: Too bitter.

    1. Are you saying cannibals used to work at the LA Times but left on less than amicable terms? Or that current LA Times employees are bitter people?

      Either seem just as likely.

  10. The old Reason magazine never used to publish tripe like this.

    Get off my internets, Cavanaugh!

    1. What can you expect from a Nazi propagandist who goes to parties dressed up as buildings?

  11. It’s too bad we can’t fire our readers.

    Hear that one much at your current employer Tim?

    1. I think they say “commenters” instead.

      1. The word is commentators. Also acceptable: taters.

  12. Everyone pretty much knows that it’s NY Times non-libtarded “lifestyle”-ish sections such as Travel and Navel-Gazing Yuppie sections is the only reason we read it for. LA Times has nothing remotely close to it, so we’re stuck with its libtarded DNC press releases masquerading as hard news. Pretty much every Angeleno in the know check the battery of local blogs and NY Times for local news before they even head out to the LA Times. Their editorials are always stunningly detached from the facts that their best reporting uncover. So the nincompoops like Rutten and Hiltzik make their pussy wet everyday for the Democrats even though the Bell story pretty much demolished their “Unions Make Me Orgasm” arguments. Everything I have to learn about LA in a day is posted la.curbed.com.

    1. Are you…tripping?

      1. every time I see your handle, I read it as “ryback’s cock” and I giggle like a schoolgirl. i’m not sure what the hell is wrong with me.

    2. Honestly, the only parts of the Times that were ever worth reading were the Sunday Calendar (back in the days of Robert Hilburn) and the Sports section under Journalist Bill. Which means the rag hasn’t had a decent reason to exist since, oh, sometime in Bill Clinton’s first term.

      Well, except for the fact that the LBPT and LADN have both been shite for as long as I’ve lived (though not as long as the better half of the Ponds company quoted in the post), anyway. If you needed to be informed about goings-on in LA County, the Times was literally the only decent source thereof once the Herald-Examiner crashed and burned.

  13. Just speaking personally, what ruined the LA Times for me? Two things:

    It was back in the ’90s.

    1) They raised the price from 25 cents to 50 cents! I could buy the Journal for 75 cents, so I did.

    2) No more smoking in restaurants.

    That was half the reason to buy a paper anyway. You could sit at the counter, order some coffee read the paper and smoke on a break.

    That’s hard to do standing outside an office building without a counter.

    1. Those two things ruined a lot of papers.
      I bought the dead-tree NYTs up until it broke the buck out here in the hinterlands. Now I only read the free hotel papers(and I prefer anything local to USA Today) on the shitter or in a vehicle.

      Smoking bans save restaurants on coffee and cost them on alcohol. Newspapers are just collateral damage.

  14. Current publisher Eddy Hartenstein is a self-regarding buffoon who tries to juice the game with advertising stunts (like a hoo-larious fake news piece on Page 1 last year)…

    Credit where it’s due: I think I’ve found the fake story in question, and I admire its self-referential irony: “In some areas of the park it is hard to distinguish between the real debris and the Styrofoam prop rubble that commonly covers Hollywood backlots. Abner Devereaux, head groundskeeper for the Universal backlot, even had trouble sorting truth from fiction.” [emphasis added]

    It gets even funnier when people whine that it was “irresponsible.” These are the same people who sued the makers of The NeverEnding Story.

    1. “Mr. Simpson, this is the most blatant case of fraudulent advertising since my suit against the film, The Never-Ending Story.”

      1. Yes, that’s exactly where I got that from.

        1. That’s great, Brian. Now WHERE’S MY SMOKING MONKEY???

  15. They have that shit wrong. Being sad makes one eat bad. I think that has been known since people didn’t have to worry about starving to death.

    1. Even Fat Bastard knows it.

  16. I could not care less. I believe…

    *checking*

    Nope. Couldn’t.

  17. 2nd image: best alt-text of all time?

    1. The third one is pretty funny too.

  18. “Two years ago I canvassed every store owner on Larchmont Blvd. to see how many had ever been approached, in person or by phone or online, by an L.A. Times ad sales rep. The answer: Big Fat Zero!”

    Not really surprising. In SF, the Chron was bought by the Hearst Corp after a legal battle about how many ‘major’ papers is a city ‘entitled’ to. After winning that battle, the Chron now sees itself as, more or less, an arm of the government.
    I’ll predict that after the paper edition fails economically (for the same reasons), that it’ll be ‘supported’ by the city government.

  19. Back in the mythical pre-blog days of the early 90s, I read the LAT for the Opinion section. It was by far the most entertaining part of the paper.

    Now that I can go browse the turned-up-to-11 shenanigans at Freep and DU anytime I want, the notion of a newspaper’s editorial page seems quaint.

  20. Yeah, the L.A. Times has been all downhill ever since they named Tor Johnson editor-in-chief.

  21. “Everyone who has worked at REASON knows that someone’s always sending in a letter of complaint about something. A handful of middle-aged readers who say REASON “ain’t what it used to be”?

    Why I recollect 4 or 5 months ago when I started gazing at Reason ads, there were all these hot busty babes in tight T-shirts – course, back than I could do it all night and with a bottle of viagra, most of daylight too. But now with the quality of the articles so low, I am scarely aroused enough to do lines off an Asian hooker’s buttcrack and wear her like a hockey mask anymore…

    1. Hey, you’re right. I don’t see Gear Girl on any of the pages up in my browser. What the fuck? The only woman depicted is in a badly aligned caption wearing glasses. What the double fuck! It’s like an invasion of Baptist.

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