Kurt Andersen is a New Yorker, but as the onetime editor-in-chief of a couple of decent magazines (Spy, New York), columnist at others (The New Yorker, Time) and co-founder of the now-defunct Inside.com he has the media chops to analyze the Los Angeles Times. He does so in this week's New York and it's not pretty. The Times, "a national paper of a Potemkin kind," should give up its aspirations to national stardom, he says in Vanity Kills. The LAT should especially stop worrying what people think of it in NYC because, Andersen says, nobody there does. Its readers are not his fellow Gothamites — or the same strata of the nation that devour the NYT.
His view from New York:
Most 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....
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.
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.
It gets more brutally frank:
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.
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.