Sunday, August 03, 2008

L.A. Times Treads the Line Between Being a Good Value or Just Desperate

Bargain-Basement Subscriptions and Quality Reporting May Not Move The Needle No Matter How Hard Tribune Tries

I usually only get to see the Los Angeles Times online from my perch in the New York suburbs. But a quick trip out west allowed me to see the much-diminished, but still-mighty paper up close and personal.
It's been well-documented about how the paper has trimmed sections, including two starting today. reduced coverage and otherwise turned itself into something less than it was.
But what remains is still more than most other papers could ever have hoped to dream for. The international report has dispatches from China, Yemen and Egypt, while the election gets five articles and a column. The sports section was all over the Dodgers and Manny, while the design and photography throughout the paper is nothing if not engaging.
Overall, the Times appears committed to a quality product, even if it eats away at a battered budget.
Case in point: today, the Times wrapped up a five-part series by Julie Cart and Bettina Boxall on the true cost of wildfires, with an above-the-fold spread on an Australian family that chose to fight a bushfire and save their land rather than flee for safety.
Conceivably, the story of wildfires could have been told without spending thousands of dollars to dispatch a reporter and photographer to the Australian outback. But it did provide a stark contrast to how the blazes are handled in California.
Which made it relevant. Which made the series complete. Kudos for investing the resources to recognize that.
It's a bigger question, though, of whether readers recognize that. Judging by the Times' recent circulation numbers, the answer is tragically no.
To this itinerant visitor, that's hard to comprehend, especially when looking at the newsstand price for the Sunday Times, which goes for a mere buck-fifty. For those of us who wordlessly shell out $4 for a New York Times the same day, that's a lot to swallow. And to think the daily Times will now cost that same $1.50, one-third of what the L.A. version goes for during the week.
If that wasn't enough of a bargain, then look no further than a deal the L.A. Times is offering, which expires today: get the paper from Thursday-Sunday for an entire year for $26. That's 50 cents a week. In other words, they'll probably spend more on newsprint for those papers than what you'd pay. Don't even bother with the costs of printing and delivery.
Yet, even though they're practically offering to give away the paper, they still can't get more readers.
In the end, no matter how compelling you make your product, it's not relevant if the audience you so desperately seek tells you thanks, but no thanks, we no longer require a newspaper to be part of our lives.

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