Wednesday, October 05, 2005

Identity Crisis At The Los Angeles Times

Or How Everything Old Is New Again Even If It Didn't Work The First Time
The Los Angeles Times is accustomed to getting a lot of Pulitzers, but not love from its corporate overlords at Tribune. Of course, that may be understandable when your circulation has slipped 18 percent in the last five years, while ads have plunged by 26 percent in that period, according to the Wall Street Journal.
Still, it remains a great paper, especially if you're looking for penetrating enterprise pieces, thorough foreign coverage, and entertainment coverage worthy of its location. But it's not enough.
So, now look for more coverage of Tinseltown, celebrities and, gasp, shorter stories.
We'll work from the assumption that editor Dean Baquet is smart enough not to dumb down the paper with reams of gossip and Lindsay Lohan sightings.
But maybe he's also throwing in the towel to concede that not everyone is reading all the way through a 3,000-word Column One piece, which no matter how well-written or reported, could wind up being the journalistic equivalent of cod-liver oil.
The key is striking a balance, no easy feat when you have frantic executives in Chicago pleading for more black ink, while you try to avoid sacrificing the editorial product at a time when the staff continues to shrink.
And those newsroom reductions come when the Times also wants to concentrate more on its sprawling backyard.
"We won't out-local the local papers. [But] I think you will see us placing bigger bets on regional coverage," publisher Jeffrey Johnson told the Journal.
Good luck.
Not only are the 16 dailies the Times goes up against not giving up without a vicious fight the Times can ill afford to wage, the paper has already been chastened in years past from editions that failed, such as the one for San Diego County.
Just because you are the better paper -- and for all its pullbacks the Times is the superior product in Southern California -- doesn't mean people will automatically plunk down their quarters at will. That's why The Register in Orange County, the Daily News, serving the Valley and The Press-Enterprise in Riverside, among others, are still in business.
They are perceived as the local papers, whereas the Times is the 400-pound gorilla from parts unknown, or at least parts where many prospective readers don't want to travel to.
Moreover, you can't siphon readers on the cheap. Sticking a few reporters in bureaus here and there just won't cut it. And don't think people will buy The Times and another paper. Most folks barely have the time or inclination for one, if that.
Given that the Times provides 20 percent of Tribune's revenue, there's a lot at stake here, not just for circulation and profits, but for a fiercely proud journalistic institution that has managed to maintain standards in the face of difficult odds.
There's nothing wrong with reinventing yourself so long as you remember what made you great and tenaciously hold on to that foundation. Dean Baquet is too good a journalist to forsake that mission.
Now, he just needs to convince his bosses to be a little patient while he figures out the right mix. The past has shown patience has been anything but a virtue with Times execs, however.
If Baquet doesn't get the time he needs, we should all fear what may happen next.

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