Human beings are creatures of habit. We find great comfort in familiar surroundings and established routines. That’s why, despite the abundance of persuasions, it is still difficult to break free from a decades long ritual of breakfast with the Los Angeles Times. Difficult, but not impossible.
The time has now come when the negatives outweigh the positives. There are many who would say that that time came long ago. So many, in fact that the Times has the distinction of having lost a larger percentage of subscribers than any other major American newspaper. And now as I join them, I shall, paraphrasing the Declaration of Independence, “declare the causes which impel [me] to the separation.”
The past couple of years have been tumultuous for the Times and its parent, the Tribune Company. Along with rapidly declining circulation, they also have been undergoing close scrutiny by investors who have forced them to seek opportunities to sell the paper or the whole company. There was lukewarm reaction to their emergence on the market, but a few curious parties emerged. They included the Chandler family (the previous and historical owners of the Times); a management consortium (of current Tribune executives); the McCormick Foundation (which is also dominated by current Tribune executives); local L. A. billionaires (Ron Burkle, Eli Broad and David Geffen in separate deals); and Sam Zell (the Chicago billionaire real- estate developer).
In addition, the newsroom has been roiled by slashes in personnel – more than 20% since Tribune acquired the Times in 2000. They have also run through several publishers and editors. The latest executive heads to roll were publisher Jeffrey Johnson and editor Dean Baquet, who were both cut loose because they balked at firing even more news staffers. Before his dismissal, Johnson wisely cautioned that, “Newspapers can’t cut their way into the future.” Unfortunately for Johnson, Chicago responded by cutting him. More recently we’ve been forced to sit through the embarrassing departure of the editorial editor, Andres Martinez, amidst a newsroom soap opera that included a Hollywood producer and his publicist, whom Martinez was linked to romantically.
Business breakdowns such as these cannot help but have an impact on the quality of the product. And for consumers, quality is the primary consideration for continuing patronage. On that score, the Times has become an almost irrelevant contributor to my sources of information. Hobbled by cuts, the Times rarely produces exclusive or unique stories. And they can hardly compete with the immediacy of the Internet. By the time I get my morning paper the news is already old. Even their Internet site is problematic because many of their stories are behind a subscription wall and since they don’t have permanent links, I avoid referencing them in my columns. On a positive note, the daily read takes far less time than in the past, but that’s because it consists of mainly of turning the pages to ignore the ever-expanding protrusion of ads.
Granted, new media is complicating the modern landscape for the press. One area that could help to buoy the dead-tree media is its capacity for greater depth, added analysis and insight, and community service. But editorially, the paper just keeps getting less representative of the community it exists to serve. The shameful sacking of Pulitzer Prize winner Robert Scheer was an early indicator of dark days to come. The fact that Scheer was replaced by Jonah Goldberg, an undistinguished and dim-witted hack, compounded the error.
The Times political endorsements have been conspicuously contrary to the leanings of their readers. They declined to endorse a presidential candidate in either 2000 or 2004. However in each of those years the Democrat won statewide with even larger majorities in Los Angeles County. The Times did endorse Arnold Schwarzenegger for governor in 2006, but Schwarzenegger lost to Phil Angelides in the L. A. County vote. The Times also endorsed three out of the four propositions that Schwarzenegger was peddling and which Californians resoundingly rejected. Of course there is no edict that requires a newspaper to mirror the views of the population it serves, and I wouldn’t argue for one. But when the divergence of opinions exceeds certain measures, you reach a point where it is doing nothing more than poking a sharp stick in your eye. At that point there is no requirement that I continue to patronize such a publication.
Recent changes at the Times are providing more evidence that management has lost command of its senses. A graphic redesign has done nothing to make the paper more functional or compelling. They have been eliminating content throughout the paper, from the business pages to the TV guide. Their experiments on the op-ed pages would have embarrassed a high school paper editor. And now they seem to be taking the advice of a thoroughly clueless stock analyst who was interviewed in the PBS documentary, “News War.” The views offered by Charles Bobrinskoy of Ariel Capital Management included the following nonsense as an argument for why the Times should cease to cover national and international news (if you can believe that):
“Readers care about the local entertainment industry, which they don’t do a very good job of covering in the L.A. Times. They care about things like fashion…”
This slice of stupidity, which ignores the fact that the vast majority of Angelinos are not actors or models, perpetuates a shallow and insulting stereotype of the 12 million hard-working citizens of the greater L. A. area. But the Times has nonetheless adopted this philosophy and will soon be debuting its latest innovation, a new section devoted to “Image.” If they were truly interested in serving their readers they might have instead considered a new “Labor” section to compliment their existing “Business” section.
Yesterday, Tribune announced that they have accepted the buyout offer from Sam Zell of Chicago. This completes the process of separating the Times from its customers. Had they agreed to a deal with local owners like Geffen or Burkle, I might have taken a wait-and-see approach to evaluate the paper’s future. But Zell is just another outsider who has declared that this is solely a financial proposition for him and that he will keep the current, and pitifully inadequate, Tribune management in place.
As a result, I no longer see a reason to continue to support a failed team that lacks the commitment, competence, or vision to produce the sort of world-class newspaper that a city like Los Angeles deserves. I see no reason to waste my time or money on a paper that has so little respect for its readers, and so little knowledge of them. While I generally approve of news enterprises shedding the artificial burdens of public ownership, the goals (and staff) of the new Zell regime appear to be identical to those of the old public corporation he is replacing
Until I see an organization with significantly different values, I will not patronize the Los Angeles Times. And until they demonstrate that they are not just another media profit center, whose loyalties are bound to owners and shareholders, rather than to consumers and citizens, no one else should patronize them either.