Tough numbers on Times

NPR's David Folkenflik came up with a good piece this afternoon for "All Things Considered" that fleshed out some of the internal corporate struggle going on at the Los Angeles Times. He reported that editor Dean Baquet and publisher Jeff Johnson have been under Tribune pressure to raise profits at the paper 7% a year, and were hit with new demands recently from Chicago to slash $10 million from the budget before the end of this year and to whack the news staff to about 800 from 930. If true, that would help explain why Baquet and Johnson publicly resisted.

Before taking the job last year, Baquet received assurances from Chicago that this would not happen — that he would be allowed to preside over an ambitious, quality paper and not be the editor who dismantles the Times. Another 14% reduction in the staff — which with last year's buyouts and layoffs and previous reductions would make for about a 33% smaller staff since Tribune took over — would announce a shift. It would have to force Baquet to seriously rethink some of what the Times does, rather than let everything suffer. Sports and Business are already shells of their former glories, there are already many fewer reporters covering Southern California news than there were pre-Tribune — so that would seem to leave painful decisions about foreign or national bureaus, expensive investigations, traveling for stories and West magazine. Folkenflik makes a comparison to the Washington Post, which does OK with a staff of about 800 — but the Post doesn't have to cover 15 million multi-cultural Southern Californians as a local paper. The LAT's future doesn't depend on it being one of the pack reporting on Washington or Baghdad or Beijing (or Paris...Hilton.) It wins back readers in Anaheim, Azusa and Rancho Cucamonga (and Los Angeles) or it loses the game.

No wonder also that Johnson bucked. He was as loyal a Tribune suit as imaginable, put in charge because the previous publisher went native rather than drag the Times into the Tribune culture. Johnson's paper makes a ton of money — about 20% return a year — but is hemorrhaging print readers and advertisers who see the value of the Times readership eroding. So how does Chicago want him to turn it around? By ensuring that his product will be less appealing to readers, instead of more. Fewer good stories, ugly ads on section fronts instead of bold reader-friendly design, scaled-back offerings throughout — good luck with that. In the NPR piece, former LAT editor John Carroll — who saw the future coming and fled Tribune's clutches last year — says his former masters in Chicago care only about Wall Street. (By the way, Folkenflik interviewed me this morning but my incoherent thoughts ended up on the cutting room floor.)

Mark Lacter adds a wrinkle: Times reporters and editors began signing an open letter to Tribune backing Baquet and Johnson. At LA Biz Observed.

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