The L.A. Times: No news would be good news

Friends at the Times (where I wrote about the magazine business in the long ago) keep me posted on what's going on there, but I rarely get exercised enough to write about it. The Times contributes so little to the political, cultural or social life of the county -- admit it, if it disappeared tomorrow, you wouldn't miss anything but the grocery store inserts, that it's hard to care very much about internal machinations that, although they may make the workplace more or less tolerable, are guaranteed to have zero impact on you or me.

However, the other Times, the real Times thinks it's news [Los Angeles Times Names New Top Editor by Richard Pérez-Peña (The New York Times, 2008-02-15)] that our fishwrap's publisher, David Hiller, decided to give the top editorial job to Russ Stanton weeks before Jim O'Shea was forced out for resisting another in the series of staff cuts that have decimated the paper.

Some of Stanton’s colleagues were disgruntled enough by the prospect, according to Pérez-Peña, to "have taken the extraordinary step of going to Mr. Hiller to ask him not to choose Mr. Stanton....[T]he concerns raised about Mr. Stanton were not about his ability, but about whether he had the stature and breadth of experience to run one of the nation’s most important newspapers."

I hear that the real story is that, in the wake of the Times' recent staffing problems, Stanton, who as the company's "Innovations Editor" (egad!) has been tasked with improving the paper's famously mediocre website, will be nothing more than a flunky for the publisher, who is regarded with contempt by most of the news staff. Stanton responded to that charge by asserting that the "circumstances under which Jim left...really hindered whoever was going to get this job, almost setting them up to be the publisher’s lackey.” Trying to find something nice to say, Pérez-Peña describes the new chief as a "little quirky; he keeps an extensive collection of Los Angeles Dodgers bobble-head dolls in his office." Mr. O’Shea before him, [Stanton] faces an uphill fight to persuade the newsroom that he is not a puppet of Mr. Hiller.


A new regime, led by the real estate developer Sam Zell, took control of The Tribune Company in December, and gave more autonomy to each newspaper publisher and television station general manager in a company that had been very top-down. But the new leadership has also made it clear to each property that it must improve its bottom line if Tribune is to meet the heavy debt obligations from the takeover.

Tribune Company bought The Times’ parent company, Times Mirror, in 2000 and installed a widely respected editor, John S. Carroll. At about that time, the paper had a news staff of about 1,200 people.

But after being forced to shrink the newsroom, Mr. Carroll quit rather than carry out another round of reductions. A new publisher, Jeff Johnson, was sent out from the company headquarters in Chicago, and a new editor, Dean P. Baquet, took Mr. Carroll’s place. They made deep cuts in the newsroom but were fired in 2006 for refusing to cut still more.

Once again, the company sent Tribune veterans from Chicago to ride herd on The Times: Mr. Hiller and Mr. O’Shea.
Typically, the local Times buried the story in the business section, but did manage to include the information that, the paper's online edition, has been adding readers at about a 20% annualized clip recently, Stanton said. The print version of The Times, the nation's fourth-largest daily, however, has seen daily circulation fall to about 780,000 from a peak of more than 1.1 million in the early 1990s, though it has shown a slight improvement recently. The print newspaper generates more than 90% of The Times' revenue, but Hiller noted that the share from online publishing has been growing rapidly.
That may explain how Stanton won the post even though he "doesn't have the same range of experience as many of his predecessors, who before moving into the editor's chair had won Pulitzer Prizes and other accolades for their own reporting or coverage they supervised." High-visibility assignments covering wars or Washington or seasoning by running other journals -- not auxiliary websites -- "traditionally have been steppingstones to the top job at The Times and other large newspapers."

You're far more likely to find the news you want in papers and websites out of New York, Sacramento and the Bay Area than from 1st and Spring, and from digital news outlets like The Huffington Post and Truthdig. If there's any good news it's that morale at the Times can hardly get worse. But further staff cuts aren't likely to improve either situation. Eli Broad and Ron Burkle ought to be relieved their bid to buy the Times was thwarted; if things continue along the same track, in a year or two they should be able to pick it up for a song.

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