Vanity Kills

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.”

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.


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.

Vanity Kills