'California' or 'Business?'

Los Angeles Times staffers were told Friday by resigned editors that publisher Eddy Hartenstein realized there would be a sizable public backlash against his decision to kill the local news section, but that he felt getting rid of the Business section instead — as all top editors reportedly advised, even the current and last two Business editors — would harm the paper's stature. It seems a tone-deaf stance by Hartenstein, given how little actual news the Business section offers most days. Call me crazy, but this was probably not the smartest Sunday to show upset readers how much the Business section has withered compared to its past award-winning years.

These are newsy economic times, right? On Sunday, the only staff story the Times could come up with was Eight great three-hour dates on a $25 budget. The setup: "Times are tough. People are cutting back. But there must be a way to have fun without spending too much money." The Travel section's cover story on driving the coast had more depth of reporting. Business had zero bylined news or recession analysis stories, just a David Lazarus column.

For readers and some Times staffers, it was a true WTF moment. Here's an email I received:

On the topic of the LA Times, today's paper hit a new low for me. The lead story in the Business section (covering 75% of the front page) is cheap places to go in Southern California. That's a Business story? Was the Calendar section full? Thankfully, I have a daily subscription to the NY Times so I'll be able to receive something resembling news. The LA Times has become so pathetic, all I can do is shake my head and recall when it was a good paper.

Eric Gressler

Many readers seem to realize what the editors know — shoving California stories inside the A section, where space will be at more premium and stories will be discouraged from jumping pages — will mean less news in the paper and less prominent display for local headlines. What news does get in will be of less depth — as it is, the Times' local report can be pretty shallow some days. There will, of course, be less room for photos and graphics. And don't forget that Hartenstein also ordered new layoffs, so there will be fewer journalists reporting.

More reaction to Hartenstein's decision (here was Friday's roundup.)

  • Council President Eric Garcetti's Facebook group called Save the L.A. Times California Section swelled to over 1,000 members in two days. Here's the official letter that Garcetti and Assistant Pro Tem Jan Perry sent Hartenstein.
  • LA Observed and LAT reader Cathy Kay:
    The speed of the LA Times demise has been breath-taking and heartbreaking. Gutting the California section makes no journalistic sense whatsoever. And, yes, I know that there was nothing journalistic about the decision. I've been a subscriber for over 30 years and I've been reading the paper since the early 60s when all I could read was the funnies. I'm suffering the same sense of betrayal that many of your other commenters have mentioned. Even more, I am struggling with a strong sense of displacement. I read what's left of the Times and I don't recognize my city - the vibrant, aggravating, complex, wonderful city the old LA Times taught me about, in depth, as I grew up.

    Even with all my frustration, I am having a hard time pulling the trigger on cancelling my LA Times subscription. I feel that by hanging on, I am somehow providing moral support to the many (okay, fewer and fewer) fine journalists who are still at the paper. While I'm not quite ready to cancel my subscription, I do plan to call and ask for a discount. As a long-term subscriber, I'm paying twice what new subscribers are offered according to the current new subscriber deal at latimes.com. Why should I pay more than a new subscriber, especially if all I'm getting is half the paper I used to get?

    Thanks for your reporting,

I understand why many longtime Times readers are canceling their subscriptions, but as Kay points out, there's a good argument to be made that supporting the paper is as much of a statement now. Former City Hall hand Larry Kaplan takes it further:

Kevin, perhaps you may want to run a comment from someone who is not gnashing his teeth, bemoaning the end of the world or canceling his subscription to the Times (I donít get those who do -- sort of cutting off oneís nose to spite oneís face; if anything, our friends at the paper need our continued readership, and walking away in a childish snit accomplishes nothing).

When I heard the news about the shrinkage of the paper my immediate reaction ďnow I will not cancel my subscription.Ē I was thinking of going to Saturday and Sunday only simply because I donít have time to read the paper during the week, and I felt bad about skimming and then recycling a big hunk of newsprint. I donít have time because of two things most Angelenos can relate to: more time commuting to work (and hence listening to KPCC or KCRW), and more time spent looking at web-based sites (including yours, Daily Dish, NYT, WSJ and the LATís own site the evening before publication). Now I know that 20 minutes over my morning coffee will do the paper justice.

Until somebody comes up with an alternative business model, this is the future of metropolitan dailies. The local angst over the Times has overshadowed the much more dire conditions of smaller dailies across America, many of which are months away from printing less than seven days a week. Everyone likes to compare the LAT to the NYT and WSJ, but they fail to remember that these are national newspapers with much broader reach (the guy who came up with the idea of a national edition of the NYT some 20-plus years ago should have a bust in the NYTís lobby for saving the paperís ass).

If the LAT had more enlightened ownership, things might be different. If the LAT had done a better job developing a national or regional edition, things might be different. If the Chandlers were like the Sulzbergers, things might be different (though the Sulzbergers are fighting a constant battle against dissident stockholders unhappy with the NYTís lousy performance, and could someday lose control of the paper). Someday, they will figure out how to make money off of the web. We could sit around pining and hoping for a white knight, like a Geffen, Riordan or Broad, to buy the paper (and any one of them could end up morphing into a Wendy McCaw).

Better, metropolitan dailies should adapt the governance model of the local PBS TV or NPR radio station: non-profit, community-based ownership, with revenues coming from a combination of advertising, subscriptions and donations. Then we would have a truly ďfree press,Ē rather than what we have now, a market-driven press.

Speaking of a market-driven press, I am betting that the LATís marketing guys see the paperís primary future salvation as the Calendar section and its coverage of the entertainment industry. Itís the only really unique product the paper has that seems to have a growing readership potential and younger demographics, so it makes business sense for them to put their resources into that at the expense of traditional civic coverage. I am not saying this is particularly appealing to me, but I get the reality of it.

I am an engaged individual -- a former council chief of staff, aide to a US Senator, director of several non-profits, involved in politics -- and have been reading the LAT every day of my life since moving here 33 years ago. But this news really does not upset me all that much (aside from worrying about the job status of a couple of personal friends who work there) because I understand the mega-changes this represents and I have alternative sources of information. A lot of civic leaders are bitching and moaning quite loudly today, but truthfully, Iím not sure the average Angeleno cares, and in the long run, Iím not sure these changes -- necessary for simple survival -- really matter all that much. My contrarian two cents.

Larry Kaplan


More by Kevin Roderick:
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