What will put LA in LATimes.com?

If a tragedy on the scale of the 1992 LA riots were to occur today, it would be reported and viewed through the eyes of Los Angelenos on YouTube.com, not LATimes.com.

Robertson Barrett, general manager of LATimes.com, expressed the observation Thursday night during a panel discussion* sponsored by the Online News Association and hosted by Yahoo at Yahoo Center in Santa Monica.

Barrett didn't offer many details about the Los Angeles Times' long-overdue redesign/rethink of its Web site (scheduled to go live mid-summer), but the overall goal seemed to be for the site to become a kind of linchpin for Greater LA, a virtual town square where people not only get news, but share it. A place to entertain and be entertained, to network and conduct business, to meet people, express opinions, and generally do just about everything everybody already does elsewhere on the Internet, except for the seedy stuff.

I was reminded of the sales pitch for the Cathedral of Our Lady of the Angels, which had the goal of becoming a source of unity in this self-centered center of the world.

Calling LA a self-centered center is as derogatory as it is cliché, but aside from the obvious reference to narcissism, LA is also a collection of centers, more than 100 municipalities packed into two letters. The closest LA has come to unity in the past 20 years has been in times of tragedy (the 1994 Northridge Earthquake) and triumph (the LA Lakers '00-'02 three-peat, without the victory riot part). On any given day the only landmark with which most Los Angelenos identify is just a big real-estate sign (Hollywoodland). No other landmark comes close. Griffith Observatory? City Hall? Not in the Valley. Not in the Inland Empire.

Is there even a single media personality in today's LA who comes close to the level of admiration once expressed for Dr. George Fischbeck?

LA is a helluva challenge for any publication or Web site, even a newspaper the size of the LA Times, which also covers the state, the nation and the world. The effort can't possibly be helped by the decline of print circulation, the uncertainty of the pending sale of Tribune Co., and the rumored resale of the LA Times that might follow that. The paper's body count of budget cuts even includes an editor and a publisher.

Marketers love to say that it's the sizzle that sells the steak, but what do you do when your steak is all bone?

Barrett couched it the only way an executive can. He said he's not distracted by all that has put the Times in the headlines. He teased to a few changes, some of which are already in place. He mentioned reverse publication of online content into the print edition, more interactivity between readers and reporters, more reader-generated content, a better search engine (thank God), and the inclusion of guest editors from different segments of the community.

It all sounded great, but whether it will be cool enough to lure online readers from wherever they are now won't be known at least until after readers give it a go this summer.

The only guarantee is that newspapers will continue to throw their Web sites around like Rubiks Cubes in pursuit of the solution that's eluded them for more than 10 years. Journalists know what a front page is supposed to look like, same as they do the cover of a magazine. But a newspaper homepage? What's that?

*LA Observed editor and publisher Kevin Roderick was also on the ONA panel.

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