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Vanity Kills

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You’d think that over the last few years, as it saw its wishful, smoke-and-mirrors national-newspaper dreams come a cropper, management would’ve gone aggressively Webby. But not the old-school L.A. Times. “‘We’ve learned over the past year,” a spokesman said ten months ago, as they pulled the plug on their national print edition for good, “that most of our East Coast audience reads us on the Web.” Really—they just learned that during 2005? Not surprisingly, their Website is a complete mess—confusingly designed, slow to load, full of broken links.

It frustrates the journalists, and the common sense of most people, that the paper is being treated like a loser given that it’s quite profitable, with margins higher than the average Fortune 500 company’s. The problem is that Wall Street can’t imagine how newspapers will grow, even if they evolve successfully into Web-based enterprises. Maybe papers like the L.A. Times “can’t cut their way into the future,” but the converse proposition—that merely spending enough will somehow reverse the outflow of readers—is wishful. Something must be done apart from whining about the heartlessness of capitalism.

If an Angeleno such as Geffen offers to pay $2 billion or more for the Times, though, won’t Tribune declare victory and unburden itself of its very noisy and visible L.A. problem? “My prediction is that they’re going to sell it,” Kinsley agrees. “And then Dean will stay.”

An ironic twist: It’s the Chandler descendants pushing the possible sale of their former family paper. When it comes to publishing, any sort of greatness pretty much requires ownership shielded from pure market forces—that is, rich individuals with a strong, engaged sense of noblesse oblige. Geffen is reportedly telling friends that he would be just such a white knight, willing to tolerate lower margins than the Tribune. Yet as someone who knows Baquet and Geffen said to me, “A large part of Dean’s job would be sitting on a couch and being told by David how stupid he is.”

Whoever ends up with the paper should insist on its remaking, which will be painful. As a stand-alone entity, its best shot is to radically refocus itself on L.A. Apart from the vanity of having the sun never set on the empire, why wouldn’t you close, for starters, the bureaus in Berlin, Cairo, Istanbul, London, Moscow, Paris, and Rome?

As Kinsley says, it’d be harder to recruit stars. “You won’t get these people who overlook the fact that they’re not read every day. [Political correspondent] Ron Brownstein wouldn’t stay. I wouldn’t have gone there.” And Baquet, who’s now the leading outside candidate to replace Bill Keller as editor of the New York Times, might not like it. “There’s no glory,” says the former news editor, “to be the guy who takes the [L.A.] Times local.” And even if Baquet believed that was the right strategy, his fond colleague thinks he may not be well suited to carry it out. “Dean is a great journalist, but he’s a terrible, terrible manager—he delays, he temporizes. They brought that with them from the [New York] Times.”

The more apposite eastern model is the Washington Post. The L.A. Times should treat the entertainment industry as its equivalent to the government—own that story, flood that zone—but also cover the whole Los Angeles basin as the Post reports on the District and Virginia and Maryland, with depth and vigor. And keep turning the whole ship in the tougher, edgier, swingier directions that Baquet has modestly veered with his coverage of a scandalous local hospital and Girls Gone Wild and the disarray at the Getty Center. “Dean has a wicked sense of fun,” Kinsley says. After the present crisis has passed, encourage the what-the-hell attitude it has engendered—such as the blog, written by an editor, making fun of Baquet’s new nine-member editorial-reinvention task force, his so-called Manhattan Project: “Instead of four years, this’ll take two months; instead of legendary airtight secrecy this was announced in the New York Times before the first meeting—but the important thing is that there’ll be some kind of fiery explosion at the end.”

Those are glimpses of candor and irreverence that the great and powerful Oz in Manhattan would never publish—which is one good bullet point for a new doctrine: Figure out how to make an excellent paper by doing things well that the New York Times can’t or won’t do.

In other words, become like 90 percent of the people in L.A., and just stop worrying what we think of you. No matter if or how the L.A. Times saves itself, we will still have the greatest newspaper on earth. Our New York smugness will continue, regardless. We’re happily parochial. You should be, too.

Email: emailandersen@aol.com.

Clarification: Figures in this column, based on the L.A. Times’ media kit, suggest the paper’s college-graduate readership is 19 percent. Scarborough Research puts the figure at 38 percent. A comparable figure for the New York Times is 69 percent.


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