Is the L.A. Times the new ground zero of newspaper staff cuts and frightsizing? Los Angelenos, of which I am one by nativity but not choice, may think so, imagining L.A. as the center of everybody's universe. It's not, of course, but the saga of the Times has been one of the more remarkable of the last decade and may be one good, if inconvenient, poster child of the debacle.
Tuesday, I was part of group talking about the Times, and how representative its tribulations are of the national newspaper malaise. The forum was KCRW's nationally syndicated "To the Point" program, hosted by veteran L.A. broadcaster Warren Olney. The topic: "Newspapers in Big Trouble: Should Americans Care?" Great question, if one incompletely answered.
While the web's a great sweeper-up of all news, it does miss quite a bit, including any kind of transcript coming out of public radio public interest programs. I believe these transcripts are produced -- and sold -- through media monitoring companies, but they are not available on the web. Hey Sergei and Larry, how about getting to all the world's info, like now? [Addendum to this point. A reader passes along that Everyzing, a voice-to-text translator company, offers a relevant free service. It's not quite a transcript -- lots of misspelled words, a little garbling -- but it's useful and does point to relevant time intervals in the broadcast. But we still need better.]
New York Times news trade reporter Richard Perez-Pena and I shared the hour with two L.A. Times editors, one current, one former, and one culture critic. There was a bit too much Internet-as-villain, but the program produced several statements worth passing on:
- L.A. Times editor Russ Stanton, appointed in February into a job with the half-life of an amateur tiger trainer, believably said all the right things about reinventing the newsroom and the paper in light of the tough times and hard budgets. When Warren Olney asked him how much money the new 15% newsprint cut and 150 headcount cut in the newsroom would save, he was, unfortunately flummoxed. He said that the money people were more after heads than money anyways, which has a half-ring of truth. Money -- actual dollars -- saved is all Tribune and its bankers care about at the moment. Russ did offer these interesting metrics on advertising. He said print ads have an 80% margin, while online ads only have a 20% margin. Those are interesting numbers, ones that I haven't heard in all the discussions of dimes-instead-of-dollars, internet-compared-to-print monetization. Overall, I think Russ' expressed optimism is heroic, a captain against the tide of history. Like Janet Coats' Interactive Newsroom restructuring in Tampa, smart editors are really going about reinventing the craft. (Fascinating excursion into Tampa Tribune intern Jessica DaSilva’s blog post on Janet's restructuring (and layoff) talk to the newsroom, the reaction to it in the blogosphere and what it tells us about deeply rooted problems of the trade here by Jay Rosen, at PressThink.) The problem they face is that no near-term reinvention will produce a product that earns the money to pay their currently staffed newsrooms. Yes, they can build better reader-pleasing products that help ramp new revenues in the new medium, but we're talking a ramp of several years at least. The larger money problem is one that must be solved, in part, beyond the bounds of the newsroom, and even of the ad departments.
- Culture critic Lee Siegel opined that journalists need to take a stand against the madness. He suggested Times staffers and other Tribuneites strike against Sam Zell. It was a bit "Cradle Will Rock"-like for me, stirring, but non-strategic. I think Sam would like nothing better than all those highly paid staffers walking out. God knows the Clear Channel guys would love to try programming the whole chain out of a low-cost center like
upstateoutstate (!) Minnesota or, in fact, Mumbai. It's a sad fact that solid, almost civil service-like professional middle class jobs in newsrooms are going away, being replaced by stringer-like arrangements that harken back to the beginning of the last century.
- John Carroll, the Times' Pulitzer-prize-winning editor from 2000-2005, was asked by Olney whether his quite-public resignation over staff cuts had made a difference. "No," John answered directly, saying it did make him feel better. You could feel his pain when he said that he could have cut more had he seen a plan -- a strategy -- to a brighter future. Instead, he said, it was just a slow panic. Unfortunately, most editors have been there, and expected that someone above their pay grade had a plan. Slowly, the realization is dawning: behind the curtain, there's no wizard, just Dean Singleton, Sam Zell, Gary Pruitt, Arthur Sulzberger, Mary Junck and other CEOs stuck in the center of a currently unworkable Rubik's Cube.
We didn't much talk about it, but the Times has been quite a peculiar case. Yes, it's easy to lambaste the current cuts, but the Times' issues run so deep and so long. Some think of the old Tribune, last run by Dennis FitzSimons, as an ogre. In truth, though, Tribune management long took a halfway approach with the Times, pushing, but not to a conclusion that satisfied anyone. In buying Times Mirror for $8.2 billion in 2000, it saw real synergies it could achieve by melding old Tribune papers with the new ones. It pushed on those synergies, but the Times culture pushed back. (It kind of reminds me of the battles between Knight Ridder CEO Tony Ridder and Pulitzer Prize-bound editors at the Philadelphia Inquirer.) Some battles won, some battles lost. Some misguided, others quite sensible.