James Rainey's staff story on today's shakeup at the Times website reveals some behind-the-scenes details on the internal tension over how best to move the LAT toward a higher and smarter web presence. He quotes from the report of last year's so-called Spring Street Project — first known, mostly sneeringly, as the Manhattan Project — and discloses a disagreement between the website's top two executives. Editor James O'Shea also has harsh words for the Times' work on the web and announces a crash training effort to get reporters and editors attuned to the faster news cycles of online journalism. From Rainey:
The Spring Street committee, named after the Times' downtown address, began its work in October and produced a scathing report that has been seen by only a few of the newspapers top editors and executives. "To put it bluntly," the seven-page report found, "as a news organization, we are not web-savvy. If anything, we are web-stupid."
Among the impediments the group cited or implied as stalling growth at latimes.com:
· Lack of assertive leadership and adequate focus on the website, both inside The Times and at the paper's parent, Tribune Co.
· Understaffing. Latimes.com employs about 18 "talented and dedicated" editorial employees, only a fraction of the 200 employees at the Washington Post's website and the 50 employed by the New York Times' site.
· "Creaky" technology that has made it impossible for latimes.com to host live chats between readers and journalists and to let readers customize stock tables or weather reports.
· Failure to integrate the newspaper's large news staff into operations at the web, contributing to delays in posting breaking news.
"We are rarely first" to post news on the Internet, the Times committee found. The result is that the paper's reports often are listed below those of other news organizations when users perform topic searches.
"When the Los Angeles Unified School District named a new superintendent, news aggregators like Google and Yahoo chose the AP story over ours," the Spring Street report says. "Ours was better but AP was first." [Actually, the news was broken on the LAT website, but on the School Me blog—LAO]
A philosophical clash between the website's top two employees -- general manager Rob Barrett and senior editor Joel Sappell -- also "hampered the site's ability to grow," the report stated. Barrett wanted the site to focus on "hyper-local" reports, to deliver Southern California readers information about their communities. Sappell argued for building "communities of affinity" rather than geography, and focused on multimedia presentations to showcase Times projects, the committee said.
An over-controlling hand from Chicago also hampered the website, says the story. Sappell will return to the newsroom as a project editor, "one of the best projects editors in the country," O'Shea says in his statement (noting that Sappell requested the move some time back.) Today's announcements include the news that the print Times will shrink to a 48-inch-wide format, the paper will be redesigned in chunks through 2007 and every section of the paper will be looked at for possible changes. Excerpts from O'Shea's remarks to the staff after the jump:
We anger people, make them laugh and keep a watchful eye on the institutions created to serve them. Could it get any better? Yes. And it is about to.
Today I am going to outline how the Los Angeles Times is going to transform itself from being a great newspaper to becoming an awesome, relentless, powerful story-telling machine online and in print.
The genesis for this, of course, is the Spring Street project launched by my predecessor and friend, Dean Baquet.
The Spring Street group's conclusion about our progress online is brutally honest and it doesn't paint a pretty picture. We're woefully behind.
I know that our natural inclination as journalists is to ask why. Who is responsible, whose fault is it, who is to blame?
And the answer to that question is: It's everyone's fault.
Every editor, reporter, photographer, artist, everyone who works here everyone who is in this room and everyone who is not here.
Everyone who has ever come up with an excuse as to why we can't do something new and different, it is your fault just as much as anyone's.
This is an excellent newsroom teeming with talent, integrity and ambition. It is a paragon of journalistic excellence. We have good strong ethics and solid standards.
But the newsroom can also be a cold, defensive, insular and conservative place, plagued by a bunker mentality that hides behind tradition and treats change as a threat.
I know there are reasons for this caution. The Willes era; the Staples Center; a determination to maintain the legacy of Otis Chandler. But we can't -- and I won't -- let those motives become roadblocks to overcoming our problems, and we have some.