Thursday, July 24, 2008

LOG ON TO LATIMES.COM OR WE'LL FIRE EVERYONE: Empirically determined, the business plan for Tribune newspapers

Read this reporter's blog on comic books, click on it two or
three times a day, or we'll lay him off.

If you live in Los Angeles and read a daily newspaper you may know of the radical down-sizing now engulfing the Los Angeles Times.

The newspaper is the property of Sam Zell, a man from Chicago who has been much cursed, and deservedly, here and here.

Early in his reign, Zell berated employees while emitting vulgar and pointless insults, the most famous being: "Everyone likes pussy. It’s un-American not to like pussy."

However, these days Zell and Tribune are in trouble. You don't see his smart mouth flapping in reports from LA Observed a famous Los Angeles site for all things in soCal journalism. Zell, like many home-owners in 2008, is upside-down on a slippery loan he engineered to buy the company. And in trying to maintain his schedule of debt service, he's forcing all the newspapers in the chain to shed much of their editorial structure. This is destroying the Los Angeles Times.

The calamity is seen in 150 immediate firings at the newspaper. The Morning Call newspaper in Allentown, also a Zell property, is dismissing one out of every three editorial employees. (As readers know, DD worked for the Morning Call newspaper many years ago and still has friends there.)

Arriving in Pasadena in '92, your host immediately began reading the Times. And he hasn't missed an issue since then.

It's a great newspaper and it helps stretch a solitary lunch into one of the better parts of every day.

However, in its rush to Internet salvation, the Los Angeles Times now acts like it wishes to be rid of its old hardcopy subscribers, sooner rather than later. Whether this is intentional or not is difficult to ascertain.

It leaders and editors appear to have become fixed on a fancy, one in which they imagine that existence on the Internet alone will, miraculously, deliver them golden eggs.

Like everyone else in the newspaper business, the Times and Tribune have no way of monetizing their on-line operation to the extent where it alone will operate a news and fact-finding agency of its size. If they wish to do away with the physical newspaper entirely, they're simply betting on magic to save their day.

In little pieces, DD sees this in the delivered copy.

Scattered throughout the newspaper will be blandishments to read some extra part of a story, available exclusively on-line. Or, as from an ad torn from today's edition, to read the new blog (!) by an entertainment reporter, in this case Geoff Boucher, who has a thing for comic books. Hmmm, a blog on comic books. Now there's something you don't see often.

One of the reasons DD reads the daily newspaper is because it is a better way to the news than through a computer screen. Compared to the newspaper laid out on the table next to the tea, a webpage is claustrophobic. It narrows the vision, forcing you to follow lists. Page-turning, a simple physical pleasure, is replaced by clicking.

Now, if DD wanted to read what the newest freak show video was on YouTube, or why "swastikas" rose to prominence in Google's most commonly searched terms for a quarter of a day, he wouldn't ask or expect the delivered newspaper to tell him. (The LA Times has a correspondent, David Sarno, who focuses on this kind of trivia.) Actually, DD wouldn't think to ask those questions at all.

The newspaper has also taken to more frequently publishing anonymous comments from its webpages, culled from the usual multitude of cyber-heevahavas, in place of a short harder piece. Perhaps this is to acclimate readers to a coming state-of-affairs in which the letters section, the place where you have to sign your name and be polite to have a chance of being heard, is dumped.

The blandishments to migrate to the web for even more crucial stuff smack of desperation. To me they say, "Read the website or almost everyone'll be fired."

When and if Sam Zell ties performance ratings on journalists to the hit rates they achieve on their webpostings, the newspaper will be totally finished. Everyone will start a scramble to see who can be the most pandering. This would be very bad for Los Angeles and California. Example: The Los Angeles Times recently exposed the practice of health insurers peremptorily cancelling the policies of people who get sick in California. When the story ran, the state investigated, eventually punitively fining the guilty parties and forcing them to re-extend coverage to those they had wiped from their rolls. Journalists who are in the business of pandering to save their professional skins won't do such stories.

(At the Village Voice, where DD free-lanced regularly between 2000-2006, the stuff that always gobbled up the most hits, the pieces almost always rated most popular among web visitors almost regardless of real world news, were sex columns and the horoscope. The Voice also seized upon the common idea that it had to have hip blogs. So it went looking for on-line instant cachet and found someone named Nick Sylvester. Sylvester subsequently put fabrications into a cover story. Although he was fired, he took down the Voice's acting editor, Doug Simmons, with him. In the end, none of it mattered. All the editors, even the one who ran the webpages, were eventually canned in the wake of a takeover by the New Times operation in Phoenix, Arizona.)

So while Tribune is cutting deep into the bone of the reporting and editing staff at the Los Angeles Times, it is adding more fluff and lard to its website. The newspaper seems to have the working attitude that in cyberspace, but not in the real world, sheer quantity is quality. And that if just enough stuff is accumulated and updated furiously at LATIMES.COM, at some point, like the forming of a beautiful crystal in a supersaturated solution, something wondrous will occur.

That's just not going to happen.

Having been in cyberspace since some of the people now working the LA Times website were young enough to be still occasionally wetting the bed, DD has seen a generation come and go on the Internet. They won't pay for electronic news and there's no way you can squeeze it from them around the edges.

However, I remain convinced that as long as there are books and paper there will always be a core audience of readers for a newspaper bought from a kiosk or delivered in the driveway. The LA newspaper should stop acting like all such readers are old and stupid farts who refuse to join the 21st century. It should also cease listening to those who tell them the same.

Please read this poor sod's propped-up blog so Tribune doesn't get him in the next wave of dismissals.


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