Tough Times: Trouble At The Tribune
by George Ducker
In a letter on Monday to Los Angeles Times employees, editor Russ Stanton announced that the Los Angeles Times Magazine is getting the boot. This comes on the heels of last week's announcement by current Tribune Co. owner Sam Zell, that he's interested in cutting the daily paper's pages down to around 50 in order to whittle out a svelter more graph-and-image oriented version of the paper that would resemble, say, the Wall Street Journal.
Sam Zell, hiding behind some foliage
Complementing this announcement in true "on message" fashion, Tribune CEO Randy Michaels noted that LA Times writers seemed to have the most inefficient output of all Tribune papers. Comparisons were made from the 51 pages that Times' reporters produce per year to the Hartford Courant, whose reporters turned out 300 pages a year. In addition to this, over the last two weeks, both foreign editor Marjorie Miller and Opinion page editor Jim Newton turned in their resignations.
Domestic Terrorism in Downtown L.A., circa 1910
On October 1, 1910, a bomb exploded against the side of the Los Angeles Times building, then located on the corner of First St. and Broadway. It put a hole in the second floor, which toppled down onto the first which toppled, in turn, into the basement. Of the perhaps 115 people working in the building at the time, at least 20 were killed.
The McNamara Brothers: Wicked Wobblies
Two brothers, James B. and Joseph J. McNamara, both of them members of the burgeoning trade union movement, were arrested and eventually convicted of the attack. The publisher of the Times, Harrison Gray Otis, was a conservative and pretty vehemently anti-union. Another bomb exploded in his house as well.
Harrison Gray Otis
Harrison Gray Otis's great grandson, Otis Chandler, was the last of the Chandler family to maintain control of the Times' Publishing arm. He left the paper in 1995 and was replaced by Mark Willes, a ruthlessly business-minded man, the former President of General Mills, and who came to be known throughout the Times building as "the cereal killer."
He was followed by Kathryn Downing, herself a complete stranger to the newspaper business who famously insisted that she had no idea what "good journalism" was. In 2000, the Times was swallowed by Tribune Co., which continues to digest it to this day. The current publisher, David Hiller, took his position in 2006. He seems to be getting along well with the bosses in Chicago.
"Medley (Ballad)" - Norman Granz (mp3)
Los Angeles Magazine ran an article in their May issue which consisted of interviews with the six editors that preceded Russ Stanton. They also noted that, between August of 1971 and August of 2005, the Times' editorial staff fluctuated at around 1,200. The peak circulation was around 1 million for the daily paper and about 1.3 million on Sundays. By January of 2008, the editorial staff was winnowed to about 850 and the daily circulation was down to 877,000.
"Honey Won't You Let Me In" - The Tallest Man On Earth (mp3)
An Earthquake As Depicted By David Shrigley
John S. Carroll (2000 - 2005) noted the Times' 1999 dalliances with marketing-based editorial, and the troubles facing print publications and their expensive advertising needs:
"Just before I became editor, there had been a breach of journalism ethics, the Staples affair, when the paper went into a business partnership with an advertiser it was writing about. There was a built-in solution—the entire newsroom rose up and said, 'This will not be tolerated.' From then on, it wasn't. Today the newsroom can't rise up and say, 'The shattering of our business model by the Internet is intolerable.' We have to live with it. Staples might have been a problem on a higher plane, namely ethics, and this is a mere business problem—but it's the kind of problem that can do you in."
Carroll, with Baquet and Johnson
"The future is on the Web, but nobody has figured out how to make enough money on the Web to sustain journalism at the level that L.A. Times readers have come to expect. Newspapers are losing one revenue stream: circulation. The other revenue stream, advertising, is so competitive and cheap on the Web that it's hard to make big money on it. So how do you sustain large-scale, expensive journalism?"
"Get It While You Can" - Janis Joplin (mp3)
"As an advertising vehicle, you're competing with Web sites that assemble a staggeringly large audience and spend almost nothing on content. And the L.A. Times is spending well in excess of $100 million a year on content. How do you price your ads competitively with someone who is spending nothing?"
Dean Baquet (2005 - 2006) who is now Washington bureau chief at the New York Times, distinguished himself by refusing to sign a non-disclosure agreement when he was let go for refusing to make more staff room cuts.
"The 20 percent of my time that I spent dealing with a bad publisher—and I mean David Hiller, not Jeffrey Johnson—was not the dominant part of my day. I spent most of my time with a newsroom that really wanted to change and do great stuff. I brainstormed ideas with a staff that wanted leadership, and for a brief moment it seemed as if we could be the best paper in the country.
Johnson and Baquet
"I almost didn't become the editor. When John Carroll left, I was worried about being the editor who would have to take the paper down. I didn't know Jeffrey Johnson, my first publisher, all that well, and I didn't know he was going to be the fine publisher he turned out to be. When people think John and I didn't understand financial realities, they are wrong. We had already cut the hell out of the place. It got to be bad for business and journalism."
"Down on Me" - Janis Joplin (mp3)
"That's one reason they're struggling with revenue now. They've cut too much—from the business side and the newsroom. They did it without any plan. It was mindless cutting to meet a number. The cutters never understood or cared about journalism. When I left, I walked away from any kind of cash severance, because I refused to sign a pledge never to criticize the Tribune Company. They were baffled. They never understood that, as a journalist, I would never forfeit my right to speak out."
Sam "Give 'Em Hell, Watch Me Yell" Zell
"Tribune was not a good steward, but Zell seems to be worse. Tribune didn't like the L.A. Times, but Zell seems to be flailing and making it up as he goes along...I wish somebody could tell this guy that he's presiding over important newspapers and that sounding like a knucklehead won't work in the newspaper business."
"So What" - Little Wings (mp3)
Regardless of whether Zell sounds like a knucklehead or not, it is clear by now that he is the man holding the axe. It is clear that his newspaper holdings present nothing more to him than a numbers challenge, a trick of shadowy substance formed by pieces of transient, printed real estate. It is clear that, to him, the replacement of editorial with advertorial seems like a very, very sensible option.
It is to Russ Stanton's credit that he wants to change the Times Magazine's name in order to distance their marketing-based pieces from the realm of real news, but it also seems only a matter of time before the higher-ups may decide that they need a new, more sales-minded individual to take the reins.
George Ducker is This Recording's taciturn Sports Correspondent. His checks have been cut by Tribune Co. for the past year. He believes in full disclosure, but only in the last paragraph.
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