One of the ways, sadly, that the Los Angeles Times has decided to be different than other media outlets is that editors will tweak online headlines hoping to score more clicks even though the headlines are untrue. I've been hearing more complaints about headline overreach, from readers and internally, but tonight the headline about supposed traffic "gridlock" generated by President Obama's visit was pure fiction.
This was not the early advance story predicting traffic snarls, but a rewrite that carried a time stamp of 9:55 p.m. — ten minutes after Obama had left the streets and arrived at the W Hotel in Westwood for his overnight stay, per the official pool reporter, the Times' own Sarah Wire. Her pool reports through the evening contained no reports of any gridlock, or any traffic snarls at all. She's not in the best position to know about traffic jams, being in the cocoon of the presidential motorcade, but the double-bylined story under that Times headline reporting that "gridlock" did occur contains no mention of any traffic problems. None.
The only evidence of any problems was the LAPD's advisory warning of street closures, and that was 24 hours old and already published by the Times. Did those closures cause any major traffic complaints? We don't know from the LA Times story.
Gridlock has become one of those hype words that less precise journalists use to mean any kind of traffic congestion, no matter how light or heavy. It's lazy and almost always inaccurate, but I get it. Still, if you headline a story screaming to the world that Obama's visit created "gridlock" in Los Angeles, there should at least be some evidence included of a bad traffic jam somewhere.
What's really going on is that threatening "Obamajam" havoc has become a Los Angeles media trope — unfortunately started by us blogs, back when these presidential fundraising visits actually did cause a lot of disruption and upset. It's not just an LA Times reflex — the Hollywood site Deadline warned of Obamageddon — but Times online editors show a lack of local savvy and disregard for news standards by participating gleefully, even though there hasn't been an outrageous example of Obama-spawned traffic jams in awhile now.
A quick search of Google News shows the LA Times is the only mainstream media outlet that ended the night with a headline reporting as fact that "gridlock" did indeed occur, and I guess that's the point — grab a few clicks and worry about your newspaper's reputation with readers later. It doesn't have to be that way, and shouldn't be.
This week, the former Boston Globe editor made famous by the current movie "Spotlight," Martin Baron, was in town to speak about the future of journalism. Baron, now the editor of the Washington Post, is a former senior editor at the LA Times, and the event happened to be at the home of the fired LA Times publisher Austin Beutner. Both Beutner and Baron, and moderator Steve Coll of the Columbia School of Journalism, emphasized that the shift to digital is no reason for newspapers to abandon journalism values such as fairness and reporting the truth. Baron and Beutner have both spoken before about how the newspaper brands that will succeed in the digital future will be those that manage to keep their standards high as they evolve. There's nothing about the digital transformation of news reporting that calls for over-hyping headlines or posting stories that over-reach. That's a choice.
Maybe it's a small thing to gin up a generic "gridlock" headline on a story that doesn't actually report any gridlock, but it's the small things that add up to a brand image in the news business, especially these days. The LA Times has so many advantages and talented reporters and editors, and could choose to earn and own the identity of being the news outlet that is smarter about Los Angeles than the herd, and earning clicks that way. But that branding choice doesn't seem to be ingrained in the paper's DNA right now.
Tim Rutten, the former Times columnist, editor and reporter, has started a new blog in which he also sees an unnecesary slide in these values at the Times. The piece this excerpt comes from is more about his view of Tribune management of the Times, but Rutten also has some thoughts about the state of the paper:
Today, circulation is half what it was and the staff more than 50% smaller; its news report grows narrower and more parochial by the week in a city and region ever more cosmopolitan and diverse. Physically, the daily and Sunday editions are hollow shadows of their former selves with sections of 12 or fewer pages common.... If you want to get really depressed, go through the paper on any average day and count the number of “house ads”—those that actually are placed by the paper itself for promotional purposes. Their current number in the Times is unpreceded and, from a revenue standpoint, unsustainable.
The handful of experienced journalists who’ve hung on through the Times’ painful decline continue to produce some remarkable work of real service to their readers, but those pieces seem rarer with each passing month. The shrinking paper mostly serves up the predictable, the shallow, the police blotter and the sort of callow, underreported, poorly written stories you get when too many young, poorly paid reporters are working with too little instruction and direction from too few editors.
One of the myths of the wrenching transformation through which American journalism is passing is that the difficulties have been compounded by print journalists’ resistance to change. That may have been somewhat true a decade or more ago, but the facts show that reporters, editors and photographers have repeatedly reinvented their roles in response to the demands of the digital environment and continue to do so. The best of them—editors like Dean Baquet at the New York Times and Marty Baron at the Washington Post, both of whom were forced out of the LA Times—have insisted that that while change is mandatory, the ethics of good journalism must remain the same, no matter what its format or presentation. That’s not resistance; that’s principle—and, some of us would say, sanity.
I don't agree with Rutten on everything, but that last part for sure. He's calling his blog Tim Rutten Regarding Politics and Media
* Morning update: The Times salts its morning follow-up story with three examples of drivers who vented mildly on Twitter about #Obamajam traffic.