Publisher Eddy Hartenstein has ordered the California section killed, leaving the L.A. Times without a separate local news front for the first time since the paper's early decades. The publisher decided to fold local news inside the front section — which will be reconfigured to downplay national and foreign news — despite what an official of the paper confirmed for me was the unanimous and vocal objections of senior editors. Advertisers were informed on Wednesday, and word began to leak on Thursday. Hartenstein reportedly planned to delay an announcement until the close of business on Friday, fearing it will play as another black eye for the Times. He's right about that. I'm told that in contentious discussions in recent weeks, the editors failed to persuade Hartenstein that if a section had to go, the more palatable cut would be to move the less-read Business pages.
The backdrop, of course, is the economy and the Times' continued free-fall in ad revenue. By getting rid of California, the Times can print the more profitable Calendar section at night and eliminate the expense of a second, earlier daily press run. (Times presses can only handle four sections per run, as this post from last Friday discussed. Note, too, that pressmen are the Times' only unionized workers.)
The move will apparently be spun as an enhancement in local coverage, but Times officials are bracing for howls of protest from print readers who already have been canceling subscriptions over the paper becoming thinner and less well edited. Some LAT officials fear this might be a tipping point. "We can't keep alienating our core readers," a senior person told me. Papers that have tried doing away with just their Business sections have been stunned by the backlash; the Orange County Register reversed its decision to mollify readers.
For the journalists, this is another big hit. They already work under the constant threat of layoffs — department heads have reportedly readied their lists, awaiting the final count from Hartenstein — and there's not much confidence that things will ever get better. Morale totally blows, especially in Metro, the department most hurt by losing the section. Hartenstein also has people kind of freaked out, I hear — but only unofficially since he has tried to ban employees from talking to me. "We have a vindictive publisher," an editor told me, asking to stay unnamed. An afternoon email to Editor Russ Stanton seeking context to the California section axing went unanswered.
By the way: I got a lot of email asking why the Times raised its newsstand price by 50 percent without any warning to customers. I'm told now that Hartenstein personally barred the customary story from running.