Times columnist Tim Rutten adds his voice to those advising the Tribune Company — essentially his bosses — to consider selling the LAT. His Saturday column contrasts the Tribune's latest push to cut the budget of a highly profitable newspaper (20% margin, he says) with the decision by two top execs at the New York Times to forego $4 million in bonuses to create an incentive pool for lower-level employees. Tribune, he suggests, lacks the NYT's belief that quality journalism is what will win the day in the current media shakeout. Rutten builds his case through this week's remarkable story in the Times in which editor Dean Baquet and publisher Jeff Johnson all but announce that they have rejected Tribune demands for more staff cuts.
Since taking control of the paper six years ago, the Chicago-based Tribune has laid off or bought out about 20% of the paper's then-1,200 person staff.
As Times staff writer James Rainey reported this week, "the editorial staff currently numbers about 940. Since 1999, The Times' photo department has shrunk by about one-third. The graphics and design department has lost more than 40% of its employees. Large daily operations in Ventura County and the San Fernando Valley, scaled back before Tribune's purchase, have been reduced to just a handful of reporters...."
Nobody is talking for the record, but it's a fairly open secret that people in Chicago believe this paper's staff ought to be somewhere around 800. Johnson and Baquet believe that's far too few people to continue providing the people of Los Angeles with a newspaper of acceptable journalistic quality.
When it comes to cutting, Baquet told Rainey this week, "you can go too far, and I don't plan to do that."
Johnson put the matter squarely: "Newspapers can't cut their way into the future."
Both of them are right. The Los Angeles Times' future as a newspaper worthy of a great American city stands in the balance.
American newspapers are passing through an era not only of technological change but also one in which a corporate ownership model seems increasingly unworkable. If the Tribune Co. does not feel able or willing to resist its investors' unreasonable demands on behalf of the public's interest, then it should put The Times into the hands of somebody who will.
Meanwhile: George Kieffer, one of the community leaders to sign last week's letter to Tribune, told me that the communication was borne of concern about the effect on the region of a further decline in the Times. The letter, he says, also was independent of the interest in buying the paper shown by local billionaires Eli Broad, Ron Burkle and David Geffen.