The bloodletting of 'Our Times'

Some lessons take longer to learn than others. It took mankind ages to figure out that the medical practice of bloodletting was actually a bad idea. So maybe newspapers like the Los Angeles Times deserve a little slack as they fumble about in search of a cure for reader disengagement.

Still, it spurs the eyes to roll when stories like this come up.

Last week, LA Times Publisher David Hiller suggested that his venerable broadsheet might publish a free tabloid styled after Times parent Tribune Co.'s RedEye, a commuter daily aimed at young readers and produced by the Chicago Tribune.

The names of good editors, reporters, photographers, copy editors, page designers and support staffers continue to be scratched from the Times' employee directory, yet the suits still look for new ways to lose money, rather than focus on the improvement of what's fast becoming the dullest read in its circulation class.

Has no one whispered the name "Campus Times" in Hiller's ear? Or, gulp, how about "Our Times?"

It's only been a year since the LA Times reprinted the suggestions of LA City Beat's Mick Farren during the opinion-page unveiling of the Manhattan Project Spring Street Project:

"The two words that spring to mind are 'get real.' The young demographic won't suddenly start reading newspapers, especially in a city with minimal mass transit"

The same October 2006 editorial that quoted Farrren also referenced the advice of the late journalist Cathy Seipp:

"A basic problem at the Times, for instance, is the continuing weakness of the features section - home of the funnies and advice columns and so traditionally looked down on by the rest of the paper. But this is the section where kids first develop a daily paper reading habit, and I don't think you need a team of investigative reporters to learn that tolerating weak feature writing and editing in features is the surest way to alienate young readers for life."

Former Times staffers like Robert Scheer have tried to educate the suits in the glass holes about LA, to explain why it's different than places like Chicago, but the consideration of products like the RedEye suggest that bloodletting is still considered a viable treatment for this particular circulation affliction.

Scheer wrote this upon the LA Times' closer of the Santa Monica edition of Our Times:

It's a matter of geography: We all know there is no simple Los Angeles that the Los Angeles Times must serve. Not in the sense that it's like New York, Chicago or Pittsburgh, where the centers of power and responsibility -- be they in education, policing or commerce -- are concentrated and easily covered by journalists, the first step toward holding powers accountable.

But even if all of that rates only a pitiful "pish," all Hiller has to do is walk LA's hipper streets to see why the RedEye wouldn't work here. It's as obvious as stoops strewn with newsprint products aimed at the youth market, or the sight of stacks of free tabloids in the entryways of so many coffee shops and corner markets.

I am not suggesting that it's impossible to create a successful daily tabloid aimed at the youth market in Los Angeles, only that it's impossible for the LA Times to do it. LA Weekly once dominated that demographic.

An LA Times effort in that regard would require too much of an investment — both in terms of dollars and years — far more than any publicly traded (or some privately owned) companies seem willing to risk. Success would require the creation of original content, not syndicated schlock combined with a regurgitation of LA Times copy (no doubt produced by witty-but-underpaid college graduates seduced by the possibility that MAYBE, if they work EXTRA EXTRA hard, SOMEDAY the LA TIMES might hire them at a REAL salary, with business cards even, medical benefits, and a parking space, er, well, maybe not the parking space).

To "get real" the LA Times would have to turn its version of the RedEye into a destination paper/Web site, the type of publication/Weblication to which young writers would apply to work, not a backwater for tenured deadwood and promising-but-unqualified applicants to the BIG daddy paper downtown. It would require gifted editors who enjoy passing on the secrets of their craft, but who also remain open to the reality that times, and standards, change. Any editor candidate who spouts that "family newspaper" tripe ought to be bounced before the obligatory newsroom tour.

Failing this most basic structure, the LA Times' RedEye will surely result in little more than red ink in the ledgers on Spring Street. In an ideal world, there'd even be a few red faces. But, c'mon. Get real.

Related links: TRIB EMPS TALK: Why RedEye West won't work

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