From China, a view on the Times

Iím writing this from Beijing, where the skyline is filled with construction cranes and the city is working around the clock to prepare for the 2008 Olympics. At 4:30 in the morning welding sparks shower down like fireworks from unfinished buildings.

Itís a lot more intensive than what Los Angeles was like in the run-up to the 1984 games — which is a sneaky way of transitioning to the real subject here — the L.A. Times.

So here goes.

I was one of the people Kurt Andersen spoke to for his column in last week's New York Magazine about the paperís misguided attempt to be a national newspaper when it barely covers Los Angeles.

In my case, I estimated that less than 15% of the people I come in contact with actually read the paper.

The reason Kurt called (aside from an old friendship that dates back to our days at Spy magazine) was because of a column I wrote in the New York Observer just after the departure of John Carroll, pointing out that on my block in Hancock Park — populated by doctors, judges, lawyers, stock brokers and other upscale Indian chiefs — only four of the twenty homes receive the paper.

The article may be behind a pay wall. But the thrust of it was the false canonization of John Carroll, the Times' ill-considered Manhattan-centric focus, the debacle that was Michael Kinsley on the editorial pages, and the almost "point of pride" among people in the entertainment industry to say "I donít read the LA Times."

What I didnít have space to use, however (ah, the constraints of a dead-tree product), was a conversation I have about once every six months with a high-placed editor at the L.A. Times:

Me: "I saw X article. It was terrific."

Editor: "Really??? You read that article???"

Me: "Yeah. Why are you so surprised?"

Editor: "Because I donít know anybody who actually reads the paper."

The other thing I didnít have room for in the Observer column was a curious and telling development: On Sunday mornings, a private company now drops off a poly-bag containing the four-color advertising supplements for Sears and K-Mart to every home on my block.

In other words, as someone from the delivery company explained, major advertisers are losing faith in the Timesí ability to deliver an audience.

(Iím going to sidestep the big issue here, which Iíve started to think about as something of a ďreverse networkĒ effect: Ebay grows because everyone uses it. At the LA Times, the declining circulation will ultimately mean less advertising, and then, still more editorial budget cuts. Itís a self-reinforcing downward spiral, that may well result in diminishing reach and influence for the paper. And no matter who ends up with it Ė Geffen or the Trib Ė the real question is whether anyone is going to have the money not just to stop the circulation loss, but to reacquire readers. Building circulation is mightily expensive.)

One thing that was particularly eye-opening in Kurtís piece was the revelation that only 19% of LA Times readers graduated from college — which Tim Rutten disputed over on Romenesko. Kurt recanted the numbers, but he got them from an LA Times on-line media kit, which — brilliantly — doesnít include readers with post-graduate degrees. (Great going there, guys. Smart way to sell your paper to advertisers.) According to a 2006 study by Scarborough Research, the real number is 37%, not Ruttenís claim of 42%. And either way, Andersenís larger observation still holds true: Itís nowhere near the education level of New York Times readers.

So whatís my point here?

From my end of the driveway — the receiving end of the paper — for all Dean Baquetís speechifying about budget cuts, and the fretting about a national versus a local paper, there seems (to me) to be a severe disconnect down on Spring Street between the product theyíre putting out, and the fact that people arenít buying it.

My editor friend, a transplant from New York, would probably attribute this to the illiterates in hot tubs. (Iím not sure. We never get that far in the conversation.)

Others blame it on the liberal slant of the paper. I wonít entirely dismiss this. But even most of the liberals I know (some of whom live on my block) donít read it. And letís not kid ourselves here: The Times does slant left. The news pages arenít not going to give George Bush a break on anything. Yeah, the administration is a mess, the war is a debacle. But even Iím tired of the drive-by hits on the Bush and Co. in articles where it doesnít belong — like the way Carina Chocano somehow managed to blame the diminishing influence of film reviewers on George Bush.

For me, the essential reason for the paperís predicament boils down to this: The Times has failed to make itself imperative to people who live in this city.

With some major exceptions — Steve Lopez, the terrific articles about corruption at the Getty Center and malfeasance at the King/Drew hospital — it doesnít seem interested in local issues: Taxes, city government, the things that effect peopleís everyday lives.

More to the point, thereís hardly a morning that goes by where I donít look at some article and say: What is this doing here? Why is this important? Why are they running it? What value does this have to Los Angeles readers? Is no one asking these questions on Spring Street?

I could give you a dozen examples of this — from the series on corrupt Nevada judges (you mean to tell me we donít have any here?) to two (yes, two!) front page articles in the Calendar section about the new museum in Denver and stories about the $20 ticket prices at the Metropolitan Museum in New York, the sale of the New York Observer, (a must-read, no doubt, in Ventura), less-than-svelte women going to the Hawaiian Tropic Tone restaurant in Times Square and the terrible tragedy of oversized portions in a city with tiny apartments. (You have to read this to believe it.)

But rather than go on here, Iíll cite two recent misfires in particular:

— When the paper unveiled its make-over on Sunday October 22nd, there was not a single article on the front page about anything in Los Angeles, save for a tiny picture in the lower-right-hand-corner of the mayor in China. Okay: In fairness, the lead story was about the lax oversight of human organ transplants, which has been something of a local problem. Although someone more in touch with the city would have realized that LAX — in caps — always stands for Los Angeles International airport. But címon: Do you really mean to tell me that in the entire city of Los Angles, there was absolutely nothing — nothing of any local interest — that was more important than a huge, above-the-fold story about Alaskan villagers living in bird fluís flight path?

— Now, letís go back a week earlier, and look at the Current Section (a/k/a, pre-Kinsley, Sunday Opinion.) In the week following the Korean nuke blast, did they off up some incendiary opinion on this? Did they examine the curious anomaly that is Arnold Schwarzenegger trouncing a Democrat in the polls in this blue state, in this bluest of seasons? Did they opine about safety in our skies, in light of the small plane crash in New York? No. If you look in the upper-right-hand-corner, leading off the section, youíll find what was essentially New York City gossip columnist Lloyd Groveís valedictory address as he exited the New York Daily News — a piece filled with references to Jared Paul Stern, Page Six, Georgetown dinner parties, Kay Graham, and Mort Zuckerman. In other words, save for a tangential reference to local L.A. zillionaire Ron Burkle, it was piece by a gossip columnist that no one out here knows, about a paper no one out here reads, filled with names that hardly anyone out here cares about.

So Iíll go back to my original question: What is this doing in the paper, played in this position? What value does it add? What does this have to do with your readerís lives?

In January 2005, the blogger Mickey Kaus wrote a piece for the paperís ďOutside the TentĒ column suggesting that the paper needs to be more gossipy. I think heís right, but Iíd put it a different way: Itís not gossip thatís lacking, but personality. The New York Times doesnít run a gossip column anymore, but it has always put flesh and blood on the bones of the people who mark the city: Koch, Giuliani, Bloomberg. Sharpton, Trump, Weinstein. George Steinbrenner, Cardinal OíConnor, the bad-boy sports and music stars.

We have all the same players here, in roughly the same positions: Maxine Waters (Sharpton), the Maloof Brothers (Steinbrenner), Jeff Katzenberg (Weinstein), Eli Broad (Trump/Larry Silverstein), the no-nonsense police commissioner Bill Bratton (the no-nonsense police commissioner Bill Bratton.) But youíd never know what these people are like — what their foibles and idiosyncrasies are — from reading the paper.

A great newspaper takes these people — these archetypes that exist in every city, from New York, to Houston, to Los Angeles — and makes them real. And in turn, people want to read about them, in the newspaper. And this is where the L.A. Times falls down so badly: By not covering the city as an interesting place, it isn't an interesting newspaper.

I could go on here — about the website that I canít navigate, or my impression that the paperís promotional efforts seem more targeted to the 10,000 people who read Variety, instead of the 10 million people who inhabit the city. (Last year, I shook my head in bewilderment every time I passed the L.A. Times billboards that said "For her 18th birthday your daughter wants an agent." Ergo, subscribe to the L.A. Times. Hey guys: This is Los Angeles. If your daughter wants an agent for her 18th birthday, youíre going to subscribe to Variety. I canít help but wonder if Peter Bart was sending you residuals for this.)

In the end, however, Iíd rather deal with Michael Kinsley.

Two weeks ago, writing in the Current section, Kinsley proffered that the L.A. Times would never be an "important" newspaper so long as it wasnít available every morning on the newsstands in Washington DC.

How parochial.

Last week in New York Magazine, Kinsley told Kurt Andersen that without a national footprint, he wouldnít have come here, and the paper wonít be able to attract — or keep — ace reporters like Ron Brownstein.

How 1980ís. Sorry, Mike, but in the Internet age, voice triumphs geography. In fact, Iíll go out on a limb here, and bet youíre reading this via Romenesko. [Or LA Observed—ed.]

In that same Currents column, Kinsley wrote that in order to "get a feel" for the city, heíd hop in his car, get on a freeway, and drive until he reached the first Wal-Mart, or Target.

How terribly condescending.

And sad.

It tells you something that he didnít try to "get a feel" for LA by reading his own newspaper.


A Times reporter responds at We Get Email.


More by Bruce Feirstein:
From China, a view on the Times
Sumner Redstone, Trendsetter?
I'll have a Gibson, straight up
Previous Native Intelligence story: Here lies Oscar Madison, oh and Felix the Nut too

Next Native Intelligence story: Where I live

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