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Vanity Kills

Whether or not the L.A. Times gets rescued by Geffen, it needs to take a good, long look at who its readers really are. One hint: Not us.

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Illustration by Ward Sutton  

M ost newspapers are dinosaurs, certainly as newsprint creatures, facing extinction sooner rather than later. Our cretaceous era is ending. But the Los Angeles Times is the Brachiosaurus of its genus. In 1990, it had a daily circulation of 1.2 million, as big as our Times. Today, it’s down to 850,000, and the decline has accelerated since 2000, when the Tribune company bought the paper.

Naturally, Tribune executives in Chicago have wanted to cut expenses accordingly. And naturally, people at the paper hate the perpetual game of musical chairs. Last month, editor Dean Baquet publicly refused to go along with any further layoffs, and Jeff Johnson, a Tribune lifer who had been his publisher for only a year, publicly supported him. “Newspapers,” Johnson was quoted in an article in his own paper, “can’t cut their way into the future.”

It was, you’ve got to admit, a pretty cool spectacle—the designated bean-counter suddenly climbing on his mill table like Sally Field and holding up a union sign.

And three weeks later, naturally, the publisher was fired.

So maybe not Norma Rae—more like the glorious bloody ends of Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid and Thelma & Louise.

Except … in this version, Thelma escapes the Thunderbird before it hurtles off the cliff, and tries to negotiate with the cops. Baquet wasn’t fired and hasn’t quit, and is apparently fevering for (if not brokering) a sale of the paper to David Geffen or some other local billionaire. Meanwhile, during the standoff, Tribune’s board hired investment bankers to “explore value creation alternatives”—that is, whether it should sell the Times or any of its other properties.

For a swath of America so emblematically cutting-edge as L.A., its serious-minded elites—movers, shakers, journalists—are weirdly, anachronistically old-school. And I think most of the failures of the L.A. Times to evolve are the result of that complacency and resistance to change.

The paper was founded in the 1880s, but became journalistically ambitious only under its fourth generation of Chandler-family ownership in the sixties and seventies. As a result, its conception of itself seems invested—mired, you might say—in that recent golden age, which coincided with L.A.’s rise to great-metropolis status.

L.A.’s liberalism remains far more circa-1975 paleo than New York City’s, and the L.A. Times’ journalism, which tends toward the dull and the earnest, reflects that. Racking up Pulitzer Prizes—the paper’s won fourteen in the last six years—doesn’t mean that a paper is exciting or essential to its readers, and can even be a contraindicator.

The notion that tedious worthiness equals substance and importance and vice versa is compensation for the elites’ anxiety about the very L.A.-ness of L.A.—sun, fun, show business, too few intellectuals and crowded sidewalks, too many fake breasts and self-confident dumb people. According to Michael Kinsley, the paper’s editorial-page editor in 2004 and 2005, “they have always been looking over their shoulder at the New York Times, and fear not being taken seriously.” Which is why they hired him, of course. And why they ran multiple articles about MoMA’s raising its admission, and a recent page-one story about New York janitors. As it happens, Baquet and two of his three top editors all came from the New York Times. “They play to an imagined East Coast constituency,” a former L.A. Times news editor told me.

Because I’ve never lived in Southern California, I figured that’s why I continue reading the New York Times whenever I visit L.A. But it turns out it’s not just me. People who live in Los Angeles are just not that into the L.A. Times either. When I polled a few of my L.A. friends, all but one (an L.A. Times writer) reported that 5 or 10 percent of their friends read the L.A. Times. And they all estimated that 30 or 40 percent of their friends read the New York Times. That’s pretty much the L.A. paper’s existential problem in a nutshell: too meager in its local coverage to make it a hometown must-read, and for the educated, affluent part of its audience—who can now buy the New York Times at any Starbucks and get it free online—redundant in its national and international coverage.

And here’s a crucial data point: a huge majority of the New York Times’ readers are college graduates, compared with 19 percent of the L.A. Times’ readers. In other words: Your readers are not like you.

“Vanity publication” normally refers to the vanity of an owner willing to forgo some profit because he thinks publishing is glamorous. But the L.A. Times’ besetting vanity issue is that of its journalists. As the New York Times turned itself into a genuinely national paper—75 percent now sold outside the city—the L.A. Times concentrated instead on being a national paper of a Potemkin kind. From 1992 until last year, it published a separate Washington-focused national edition. Vanity was the driver, reporters and editors’ wanting their work to be on the radar of sources and subjects and peers outside L.A. And in order to be considered a top-tier paper by journalists, it needed to have a Washington bureau with dozens of people, and dozens of bureaus around the world—regardless of whether readers in L.A. really needed coverage of the Supreme Court and Boston and Jakarta by employees of the L.A. Times. Kinsley calls it “the industry’s leading example of needless excellence.”


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