Charting the LAT's decline

In the June issue of Los Angeles, our own Mark Lacter takes a look behind the sagging fortunes of the L.A. Times and finds a set of multifaceted challenges. The paper, he writes, was "booby-trapped for disaster because, paradoxically, its culture was so steeped in success." Of course, Sam Zell's fumbling hasn't helped. The story is online now and at newsstands; here are some excerpts.

The Los Angeles Times took a while to sink so low—go back ten years, to the issue of October 10, 1999, and its ills were already beginning to show....

The news business has been in free fall for some time, in part because of a killer recession but more broadly because arrogant and often incompetent owners and operators didn’t have the smarts to recognize that the world around them was changing. The Times epitomized that attitude. But those institutional and economic challenges have been made considerably worse by Sam Zell, the avaricious real estate tycoon who took over the Times’s parent, Tribune Company, in 2007 in a transaction that even he admits was a mistake....

The Times has become damaged goods, with hundreds of employees laid off, day-to-day reporting severely curtailed, and national and foreign bureaus either shuttered or consolidated with other Tribune dailies. Circulation has plunged from its peak of 1.2 million in 1991 to 739,000, and it’s likely to keep falling in 2009....

The Times long had been booby-trapped for disaster because, paradoxically, its culture was so steeped in success. A little failure here and there can act as a corporate wake-up call, but with such reliable—and massive—revenue streams there was no incentive to drastically change course. “It’s a classic situation that when you dominate an industry, you don’t appreciate the need to change,” says Janis Heaphy, a former senior vice president of advertising at the Times and until last year the president and publisher of The Sacramento Bee. “You’re sluggish. Everything around you is changing quicker.”


Zell could hardly have placed a worse bet. He got a company in terrible shape, and the employees got an investor with no experience in managing a megabillion-dollar media conglomerate that was committed to serving the public interest.


[Publisher Eddy] Hartenstein isn’t talking about any of this. The former chief executive of DirecTV, whom Zell hired last summer, was not made available for an interview. A Times PR person said my piece was “bound to be negative” and “would not add to the conversation.” Apparently, it’s not only me—the new publisher has advised his executive team, including Stanton, to steer clear of interviews. Leaks to blogs and other news organizations are being regarded as “treason.”

Lacter concludes that the paper "still has a lot going for it."

The Times is not only a newspaper, it’s a one-of-a-kind, nationally known brand, and brands can be money-making commodities, whatever the size and quality of the newsroom (it remains the largest in Southern California). That’s why big-box stores and supermarkets continue to stuff their advertising inserts in the Sunday edition and why NBC chose to pay a premium for that front-page treatment.

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