David A. Greene examines the life, near-death, and uncertain future of America’s greatest daily newspaper west of the Mississippi.
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The near-death of the Los Angeles Times—or more precisely, its systematic dismemberment, like the limbless Black Knight in Monty Python and the Holy Grail—is yesterday’s news. The Times, one of America’s great daily newspapers, was famously acquired in a 2007 leveraged buyout by Chicago real-estate tycoon Sam Zell, and in the ensuing annus horribilis, the paper was hacked down, dumbed down, and finally flushed down the bankruptcy hole in late 2008.
Since then, the story of the L.A. Times’ great fall has been an evergreen object lesson for all that has gone wrong with the newspaper business. Yet the Times is still around: Shielded by the toxic umbrella of Chapter 11, waiting for someone—anyone—to pick it up and give it a new home, the newspaper has gone on publishing, even winning a Pulitzer Prize in 2009. “There’s nothing broken about the L.A. Times,” insists Dan Neil, the automotive critic who won a Pulitzer in 2004 with the Times, and now writes for the Wall Street Journal. “I read it every day,” Neil says. “The overseas reporting is superb. It fucking kills me to hear people bitch and complain about the L.A. Times. Fine, get your Cairo news from Anderson Cooper. That paper, and those people, are doing a wonderful job under immense pressures.”
Those pressures include uncertainty about the paper’s financial future, and fewer resources to compete with internet news aggregators like the Huffington Post—common challenges of all daily newspapers in the 21st century. But the L.A. Times’ struggles have been complicated by the obnoxious moves and unintended consequences of the Zell era, including mass layoffs, fleeing readership, and the defection of star writers like Neil, who is currently suing Zell on behalf of a group of Times staffers. And it has all been put in sharp relief by the legend of the Los Angeles Times as a news giant—a legend written largely by the Times itself.
“A great city deserves a great newspaper.” That was the tagline of a series of TV commercials for the Chicago Tribune, starring renowned columnist Mike Royko, back in the 1980s. It was also the mantra of Otis Chandler (1927-2006), the revered publisher of the Los Angeles Times. Heir to a Times dynasty that stretched back to the 1880s, Chandler built the family-owned newspaper into one of the four most important dailies in the United States, along with the Tribune, the Washington Post, and The New York Times. Chandler did it to make money, of course; but he also did it out of jealousy, feeling like the country cousin at the Pulitzer-studded East Coast journalistic fetes he was obligated to attend.
For generations, the L.A. Times had been a small, stabby tool of commerce, aimed at the Midwestern elites of the “new” Los Angeles of the late 19th and early 20th century. The patriarch of the Chandler clan, Harrison Gray Otis, was a hard-nosed Ohio newspaperman and Civil War hero who had no patience for truth-seeking or Talmudic debate; as publishers of the Times, he and his descendants used the anti-union, staunchly Republican newspaper as an advertising brochure for their Southern California real-estate holdings—and to destroy policies and politicians that stood in their way.
Starting in 1960, however, Otis Chandler retooled his great-grandfather’s paper to broaden and expand its readership, employing a so-called “mass and class” strategy of giving upper-income readers the hard news they needed and wage-earners the lifestyle fluff they wanted. With beefed-up foreign bureaus and increased local, sports, and entertainment coverage, Chandler’s Times landed on driveways across Los Angeles like a plump, trussed pork roast, stuffed with ads for the department stores that once bloomed like golden poppies across the Southland. Via its heft alone, Chandler’s Times felt like a great paper, chronicler of the “world class city” that Los Angeles was striving to become.
“There’s plenty of ad money around to do the critical work of journalism, but not enough to do that and line the pockets of swine like Zell.”\n
So it was ironic when, in 2000, the Chandler family handed their baby back to the Midwest, selling the L.A. Times and their Times-Mirror empire to the Chicago-based Tribune Company, a media octopus that owned numerous newspaper and television outlets. The Tribune years weren’t especially kind to the L.A. Times, but it went from bad to crazy in 2007, when the company was acquired by Sam Zell, who immediately saddled it with $8.2 billion in debt.
Zell was an entrepreneur, just like Harrison Gray Otis. But the parallel ended there, since Zell had no interest in newspapers or in Los Angeles, and thus in the Times’ uniquely valuable influence and assets. Zell slashed the staff, demanding more column-inches per writer, and less hard news: He famously told employees, “We’re in the business of satisfying customers, and we will respond to what they say they want.” By tossing Otis Chandler’s mass-and-class algorithm out the window, Zell promised the journalistic equivalent of free porn and milkshakes for everyone. “He thought we should be writing stories about puppies and whatever else pandered to readers, not stuff that’s important or deep and meaningful,” says a current L.A. Times staff writer. But even that didn’t work, and 19 months later, the Tribune Company filed for bankruptcy.
Today, the Los Angeles Times still feels like a big-city newspaper, if literally diminished: The paper is comically narrow, with some columns only three or four words wide. California and L.A. news used to have its own section; now local stories are mixed with late-breaking national news in a slight second (or “AA”) section. The Sunday magazine is a cipher, run by editors one day, advertisers the next. Columnists whose strong, even abrasive personalities used to pepper the interior of the paper, drawing you deeper into the back sections, are now front and center: Steve Lopez, the influential local-color columnist made famous by his book The Soloist, is spotlighted on page 2 of the paper; and T.J. Simers, the snarky sportswriter who used to snipe from inside the stats pages, is now featured on the Sports section’s first page. Part of the new format is to give readers the personalities they crave up front; and part is covering for the fact that so many of their colleagues are gone.
“The San Fernando Valley would be the sixth largest city in the U.S. if it were not part of L.A.,” says Kevin Roderick. “The Times has one reporter there. ... It used to have more than 30.” Roderick was an L.A. Times employee for 25 years and is now editor of L.A. Observed, a key online read for those who construct their own ideal L.A. Times every morning from a roster of weeklies and websites that fill in the gaps. Roderick observes that today’s Times “still has an important and respected foreign staff, but isn’t dominant in any particular area. It’s not the go-to place for Hollywood and entertainment coverage that it always aspired to become. It’s still a player in politics, but much less important nationally and in California than ever before. And online it has chosen a strange path by making its national political blog a Republican organ, apparently in a quest for page-views.”
The online version of the Times is indeed a different animal: While The New York Times reads almost exactly the same whether in print or online, the online version of the L.A. Times is racier, bloodier, and celebrity-train-wreckier than the newsprint copy. It’s also more profitable. “The website is not as highbrow as the print paper,” says a Times staff writer. “Personally I find this rather frustrating, but I certainly concede that it generates more traffic this way.”
In his December, 2010, year-end letter to Times employees, current publisher Eddy Hartenstein notes the accomplishments of the Times, and its plans for the (uncertain) future. He mentions the Bell corruption investigation, which received national accolades and a George Polk Award; that the Times is still “one of the handful of news organizations committed to foreign news”; and lists a host of new digital, local, and entertainment initiatives. The litany hints at just how daunting a task it is to tell the story of a metropolitan area of 13 million people, spread out over 5,000 square miles, while giving it the world—every day.
Everyone agrees that the Times’ eventual new owners must rethink the newspaper’s role, but not all agree on where it should go from here. “They’re at a crossroads,” says Steve Hochman, an L.A. Times contributor since 1985. “They have an opportunity to redefine what a newspaper in Los Angeles is.” So what should the L.A. Times of the future look like? “The Times should become a great paper for L.A. first,” says Hochman. This is a sentiment agreed to by many current and former Times staffers—that the provincial but razor-sharp Times of Harrison Gray Otis is preferable to a sham version of the platonic world-class paper dreamed of by Otis Chandler.
For Roderick, the future L.A. Times is all about great writing: “The Times used to have arguably the best and most long-form writers of any paper in the country, but that talent is no longer valued.” As for new ownership, “Any structure or individual could work,” says Roderick, “so long as the priority is to make the brand about quality journalism.” For Dan Neil, going nonprofit is the only answer. The logic is simple: If the need to make a profit is gone, so is the pressure to publish crap. “It has to be put on a philanthropic/foundation footing,” Neil says of the Times. “There’s plenty of ad money around to do the critical work of journalism, but not enough to do that and line the pockets of swine like Zell.”
While 501(c)3 status frees a newspaper from the pressure to profit, it’s not a license to bleed cash. If it doesn’t want to cover both Libya and Lindsay Lohan, a nonprofit L.A. Times could end up dramatically smaller than the current version, even going weekly, like the nonprofit Christian Science Monitor. A philanthropic “Sugar Daddy” model may suit Los Angeles better: A rich benefactor with deep L.A. ties and even deeper pockets could recruit superstar journalists, and trade net operating losses for a bully pulpit. The names mentioned most frequently here are Eli Broad, the billionaire home-building magnate and arts patron, and David Geffen, the legendary record and movie producer.
"The San Fernando Valley would be the sixth largest city in the U.S. if it were not part of L.A. The Times has one reporter there ... it used to have more than 30."\n
Then there’s the argument that if ever there were a city that could be best served by an online-only paper, sprawling L.A. is it. Unlike The New York Times and Washington Post, which are woven into the fabric of their namesake cities, the L.A. Times has never really been tied to the landscape and rhythms of Los Angeles. An electronic version, beamed free to every cell phone in the Southland, might finally make it so.
It’s impossible to separate the fate of the L.A. Times from that of big-city newspapers in general. With so many local, national, and international news sources available online, the traditional function of a daily paper—delivering the news on dead trees—is thoroughly obsolete. But the issues of quality, authority, and diversity have never been more important. For a democratic society to flourish, critical thinking must thrive. So whether it shows up on your iPad or your front steps, a robust and opinionated news source speaking from, and to, the largest U.S. metropolis west of the Mississippi is crucial to the health of the nation. A great city still needs a great newspaper.
Never mind that the worst-case scenarios are the likeliest: That the Los Angeles Times and Tribune Company will be scooped up by a consortium of investors who will stretch resources even thinner; or, they’ll be homogenized into another newspaper syndicate, losing local flavor entirely. For those who wish good things for the L.A. Times, the sweetest time to dream is while waiting for the other shoe to drop.
Photos by Jonathan Sager