When I ponder the future of the Los Angeles Times, where I worked for more than 30 years, I think of two Tribunes. One is the Chicago Tribune and its “News Now” web site. The other Tribune is in Oakland, where I started.
The Times’ 2007 path is uncertain. The Chicago guys who run the Tribune company are trying to hang on. If they do, we’ll probably end up with something I’ll call the Chicago Model.
The LA rich guys—David Geffen, Eli Broad, Ron Burkle—also want the paper. If one or a combination of them succeed, we could get the Oakland Model.
The Oakland Tribune was run by a rich guy named Joseph R. Knowland and later by his not-so-rich (the perils of Vegas) son, former U.S. Sen. William F. Knowland. Unlike Geffen and Broad, Joseph Knowland was not interested in high culture. His passion was politics and all political news was slanted to fit his right-wing Republican views. The Chandlers ran the Times the same way in the pre-Otis days.
Will Geffen or Broad be like the Knowlands or Chandlers, censoring articles that fall out of line with their views or criticize their friends? I hope not. I would hope that Geffen would accept the Times theater critic writing: “The Geffen season has been abysmal but the latest production at the theater sunk to a new low.”
For the Chicago Model, take a look at the Tribune News Now web site at ChicagoTribune.com. It gives you breaking news from the paper’s 24-hour newsroom. If the tough crew from Chicago holds on, this Chicago Model may be the future of the LA Times and a lot of the staff won’t like it.
Here’s why: In addition to national and foreign stories, there is a huge amount of local news on News Now, posted quickly. Commuter train derails, it’s on the web site right away. Cockfighting ring broken up. It’s the lead story. This takes a crew of writers, pounding it out fast. Such work takes a special talent. But it is a talent devalued at the Times, where gracefully written long stories and deep investigative projects have been the ticket to success. Some of the stars may find themselves working on Times News Now, open 24 hours a day. Their cry will change from “I need two more months for this story” to “When do I get off nights?”
I like the 24- hour web operation and admire reporters who can write fast, prolifically and well. The Times needs a better web site. But I also admire the graceful writing and hard digging of the stars who have made the Times a great paper. One doesn’t exclude the other. I want the impossible, a Geffen, Broad or Burkle with the integrity and independence of Otis Chandler. “Shazam!” as Billy Batson used to say when he became Captain Marvel.