I've gotten some more details on the Los Angeles Times' sudden new quest to journalistically investigate how it can reengage with readers, an effort unfortunately dubbed the Manhattan Project (more on that below.) The team met yesterday afternoon with editor Dean Baquet and publisher David Hiller, who gave it their imprimatur as the newsroom's biggest current undertaking. So what is it? Fair question. Baquet wants three investigative reporters to proceed as if they are checking out a story — to gather and evaluate the impressions of numerous sources outside the paper about how the Times is failing and ideas for rethinking the content in print and on the web. Silicon Valley reporter Chris Gaither is talking to New Media and technology leaders in the Bay Area, L.A. based investigative reporter Glenn Bunting is approaching people here and T. Christian Miller, based in Washington, is handling the East Coast. They will be guided by a committee that includes deputy features editor Michalene Busico, Calendar columnist Patrick Goldstein, website editor Richard Rushfield, new D.C. investigations editor Marilyn Thompson and technology editor Aaron Curtiss. The group convenes for the first time today.
The idea of a crisis task force apparently began with two editors, Marc Duvoisin and Vernon Loeb, who didn't want to watch the paper slowly fade into irrelevance. They approached Baquet with the proposal, I'm told. Baquet reportedly said he's tired of "playing defense" and wants to go on offense, hoping to be brought ten or a dozen changes he can order — beat reassignments, new approaches to stories, different priorities — and two or three suggestions for major revamps that he would take to Hiller or to Chicago for discussion. A central focus is apparently how to improve the website and transform the Times into a major online presence. A lesser focus, and a possibly controversial one, is that the reporters will also be looking for ways the paper can grow revenue.
Why the editor at a struggling major property like the Los Angeles Times isn't already fluent on all of these issues — and why the business side hasn't already examined every possible revenue angle — are just two of the big questions raised by such an abrupt and public declaration of an emergency. Another reaction might be: what, another LAT crisis? Last month it was the Tribune demanding to slash the staff and Baquet contemplating a dramatic exit. Last week it was the publisher getting the axe for arguing cuts would do more long-term harm than short-term good. This week, the paper has suddenly gotten religion about its years-in-the-making loss of reader appeal — and the new publisher is OK with possibly expensive steps being put on the table. Nothing matters anyway if Tribune's only real concern is squeezing a little more profit out of the Times, and Hiller apparently hasn't ruled out that all this may not deter the bean cutters.
I can't remember a single big newsroom committee that ever truly delivered the goods, even those I sat on, and this one has a tall order. Three reporters not noted for their media savvy or future vision — nothing personal, it's just not in their job descriptions or their resumes — are being asked to come up with solutions that elude even the most thoughtful media thinkers — essentially, the secret to saving newspapers. Good luck with that, guys. Perhaps a more useful idea would have been to convene a panel of Los Angeles thinkers, creative types and ordinary people and ask them how they want their news. Really ask them, and listen to the painful answers.
Which brings me to the effort's opening gaffe — using World War II imagery and calling it the Manhattan Project in the pages of the New York Times. Besides looking silly claiming an extreme level of urgency and commitment of high talent, it opens up the L.A. Times to mockery on so many levels. Dan Kennedy, the respected Boston media critic, already blogged: "Given that the Los Angeles Times has a reputation for being out of touch with its home base, I find it somehow hilarious that a new project to reinvent the newspaper has become known internally as the "Manhattan Project." More on that theme at the LA Observed letters page. Sample: "How about Los Angeles Project? For those of us, say, from Los Angeles." I for one think some interesting innovations could come of this, even if it's just stealing ideas from here and there. So I hope this wasn't an omen: the Times Opinion web page posted a blog item about "Our Manhattan Project" — but the link was dead last night. (They moved it here.)
New name: It's now the Spring Street Project
Photo: Edward Fuentes/ViewFromaLoft.com