I'd like to read the Los Angeles Times manual on "how to deal with difficult situations." Though it's never been made public, it's clear it's been infiltrated by those disseminating disinformation. The result: no matter what seems to happen at the Times in the last several years -- old Tribune and new Zell-led Tribune -- we all get to witness some blow-out spectacle, the kind of spectacle such manuals are supposed to keep behind closed doors.
This week, of course, after Randy Michaels' newly announced Halfsies (50/50 edit/ad split) Strategy, the Times re-takes the spotlight. Word leaks out that the Los Angeles Times Magazine, one of the few remaining Sunday magazines, has been seized in a coup by the Times' business side. Its editors and writers are out -- maybe there's a Planet Runway-like Journalist Elimination reality show David Hiller can sell to his new Hollywood friends (check out this good LA Observed piece on Hiller "being star-struck by the glamour of his adopted hometown"). Former InStyle and L.A. Style Editor Annie Gilbar will apparently head the new mag.
The decision to launch (re-launch) a new advertiser-friendly magazine in and of itself is no shocker,
and not a bad idea. The New York Times and the Boston Globe are just two of numerous well-regarded papers to plumb design, home, fashion and more, going after high-end and luxury dollars. Such magazines can be run by editorial departments; they can be run by advertising departments. The key is to clearly and prominently tell your readers who is producing the section. Readers aren't dummies; they take in the content for what it is.
But at the Times, of course, the situation had to blow up, handled in an unbelievably clumsy way. You'd think that the paper's recent historic memory over the secret Staples Center "sponsorship" and revenue sharing of and with a "special section" -- which cost the jobs of then-editor Michael Parks and then-publisher Kathryn Downing -- should have been instructive, even if it did happen a year before Tribune bought the Times.
But, no, the Times managed to make the elimination of the L.A. Times Magazine (which had become monthly) and its replacement with an ad product another debacle. Why not close the L.A. Times Magazine, sending it to an eternal rest that most of its brethren have found in the last couple of decades. Then, have your business side launch all the high-demo magazines you want. It seems so simple.
Maybe, it's that Publisher David Hiller indeed wants to keep the name of the magazine intact, playing sleight of hand with readers. Maybe he's not sure yet. But he's managed to leave new (installed in February) editor Russ Stanton dangling in the wind, pleading that the name not being, shall we say, re-purposed. You could place bets on Stanton's half-life before this controversy, as the Times has managed an unprecedented turnover in its publisher and top editor ranks (well-chronicled here by Joe Strupp). Odds on Stanton's tenure shifted this week.
Why do things keep blowing up at the Times? My sense is that the place has two uneasy cultures, cultures that have always been uneasy with each other, but ones that are now colliding.
On the editorial side, the Times newsroom leadership is famous for its institutional haughtiness and resistance to change, despite the changing needs of readers and changing demands of the web age. (Here, we understand Randy Michaels' point as his stats show LAT newsroom story productivity being 4-6X less than that of other Tribune papers.)
On the business side, we first saw Chicago-based and Chicago-bound Tribune execs unable to find a successful way to move the Times into the 21st century, resulting in one trainwreck after another. Now, with the hot breath of a $12 bill debt bogeyman bearing down, the new Zell-led Tribune is going to have less patience with resistance to change and less concern about the niceties of editorial and ad walls.
But this isn't just about our voyeuristic watchings of Times' misfortunes. This is about the increasingly rapid destroying of the Times' brand. Yes, you can poke all kinds of fun at its stodginess, but recall that we are talking about a paper that once proudly ranked in the top 10 nationwide, deploying reporters around the globe and the country, sending back great journalism.
Staples, musical chairs in the exec ranks, alchemizing editorial gold into advertising silver -- all these are noticed by readers. They scream Old Media, forgettable, dying old media, and media that just can't be known (even as it was loved or hated) for the Good Housekeeping brand value it used to have. Such brand value shouldn't matter just to journalists; ad sellers will tell you that well-known newspaper brands still fetch above-average ad rates.
Unfortunately, the Times brand is not the only one at stake. As the economic pressures mount at newspapers, the pressures to thin the line between editorial and ads is being felt in many newspaper buildings. (I'm not one that thinks Philly's recent Derrie-Air ad satire is a big issue; it's an ad.) I do recall my early days at Knight Ridder New Media (later Knight Ridder Digital), when the ad people started selling the editorial-looking "Ask the Expert," presenting self-serving realtor, plumber, insurance salesman content. We protested, but were told the web is different.
Yes, many things about the web -- and print newspapers going forward -- are different. But one thing's not -- telling readers whether what they are reading is being presented with, or without, fear or favor.MORE RECENT TRIBUNE COVERAGE The Newest Barbarians, Bearing Spreadsheets, here. What's Wrong with Tribune's Math, here