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.
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.
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."
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.