Before he edited the L.A. Times Book Review, Steve Wasserman was deputy editor of the paper's op-ed page and Opinion section (and before that was a researcher for Robert Scheer.) He studied the Times culture from the inside for fourteen years until leaving this year for the full-time book world. In the most biting insider view published yet, Wasserman writes at Scheer's new Truthdig webzine that Tribune ownership and local management are jettisoning a reputation for excellence built up over decades and asks: "Are there any adults left minding the store?" It gets especially good when he quotes people calling the Tribune's execs Philistines and morons. But first, he expounds on the spreading meme that the Times has let itself become clueless about Southern California and says the paper is suffering "a slow-motion nervous breakdown."
Caveat: Of course Wasserman wrote this for Scheer, who has been mighty upset that his column was dropped. Nonetheless, if you're interested in the Times' future or past, I suggest you read the whole thing. Here's some selected excerpts:
"Despite the vast reams of internal marketing surveys the paper has routinely commissioned over the years, the Times today seems no longer to know who its readers are, much less how to talk to them. Today the paper is ironically an almost perfect reflection of the city it purports to cover: Neither really knows what it wants to be when it grows up...
The collapse of the Cold War and the military-industrial complex that had fueled so much of Southern California’s economy, providing jobs and patronage; the bitter ethnic divisions that exploded into view during the riots over the Rodney King affair; the rise of an over-oxygenated Hollywood elite, many of whose members seemed curiously aloof from the city in which they had made their considerable fortunes; together with the growing political clout of the swelling Latino population and the staggering numbers of Asians that flooded into the region, were among the more salient factors that combined to hollow out the core readership of white Midwesterners that had been the backbone of the Los Angeles Times. Ever since, the paper has been undergoing a slow-motion nervous breakdown, its cultural hegemony broken, its political clout diminished, and the men in charge left bewildered and bereft.
The industry they serve is challenged by technologies that render increasingly obsolete and archaic the very means by which news is delivered and advertisers satisfied. And the class for which the paper had traditionally served as tribune is gone, having been replaced by a clique of investors and lobbyists whose interests the paper seems only fitfully interested in aggressively investigating, as Tom Hayden’s incisive letter to the Times of Nov. 27 makes clear. To be sure, if the talented and ambitious Dean Baquet, the paper’s current editor, is permitted to have his way that may well change, provided of course that he has enough strength of character and staff left to do a proper job. His minders, however, are outsiders with no stake in the city’s civic future. There is no consensus within the paper as to who it represents or what, if anything, it should stand for. It has no voice; it lacks gravitas.
Efforts to staunch the hemorrhage of readers grow steadily desperate. The paper’s managers oscillate between embracing a strategy that recognizes that the local went global years ago and a strategy that makes a fetish of the local. Today’s editors, under pressure from Tribune to arrive at an allegedly closer emotional bond with the paper’s prospective readers, have raised the notion of the local to a near-dogma. Whatever one thought, for example, of Michael Kinsley’s efforts to reinvent the editorial and opinion pages of the Times, the reasons advanced for his ouster were provincial in character. He was accused of an unseemly devotion to national and international questions and was said to be insufficiently attentive to local and regional issues. It is an irony, of course, that the paper’s current managers are almost all outsiders whose experience of and familiarity with Los Angeles prior to being hired by the paper was, to say the least, nearly nonexistent.
How the notion of newspaper-as-mirror can be successfully applied at the Los Angeles Times at a moment when longtime editorial writers like Sergio Muñoz, former editor of the Spanish-language La Opinion and a man widely admired among a broad swath of a Latino community whose members form about a quarter of the paper’s readership, are permitted to depart, is puzzling. Others who are leaving include Bill Stall, who was awarded a Pulitzer Prize for editorial writing in 2004; Kevin Thomas, whose deep knowledge of and passion for movies and championing of independent films and near-Stakhanovite capacity for writing daily stories is legendary, and, according to a report on laobserved.com, George Skelton, whose knowledge of Sacramento politics is unrivaled. They will be missed. So too will longtime editors and writers Claudia Luther and Myrna Oliver, who virtually invented the writing of serious obituaries at the paper. This accomplishment was something of a heresy at a newspaper that for years seemed reluctant even to note the dead, so firmly was the idea of Los Angeles as an Arcadia for the forever young so well established. The departure of Larry Stammer, the paper’s religion correspondent, is also regrettable. These gifted men and women are among the paper’s stalwarts who have stoically contributed over the decades to the paper’s considerable reputation.
Moreover, their exodus occurs in the context of Tribune’s earlier shutdown of the paper’s numerous zoned editions, which were designed precisely to appeal to local constituencies, not to mention the wholesale gutting of the Orange County edition that saw the loss of scores of jobs. It is hard to avoid the conclusion that the paper, in a frenetic effort to reinvent itself under the suffocating pressure of its Chicago overseers, is jettisoning a patrimony of journalistic excellence painstakingly built up over the years at great cost.
After all, the men who control the paper’s fiscal destiny have never shown any particular commitment to Los Angeles, regarding it with all the unbridled avariciousness and ill-concealed contempt that Cortez displayed toward Montezuma and his benighted Aztecs. As a former high official of the paper recently told me, “You’ve no idea how fast these folks are strip-mining the place. They’ve already carted away millions of dollars. Their efforts to attract advertising and grow the business have come to nothing. They’re Midwestern white men obsessed with only two things: the Chicago Cubs and accounting. They care nothing for journalism. They are Philistines.”
When told of this judgment, Jim Squires said, “Philistines is perfect characterization for that crowd, only the Philistines as a group were smarter. You cannot imagine how intellectually inferior three of the last four chairman of Tribune Co. were.” He compared them to George Bush, remarking that they were “complete frauds as leaders and executives.” “Chicago,” he said, “is a street-smart town. Cops, crooks, restaurateurs, developers, writers—they are bold and wily. The business executives, on the other hand, are weak and moronic.”