The paper chase

L.A. Times Publisher Eddy Hartenstein offered a year-end report in Sunday's edition extolling the paper's journalistic successes and previewing all the good things coming our way in 2011.

I've read the paper pretty much every day since joining the adult club, and as someone who also claims membership in another L.A. Times club (laid-off journalists), I join him in saluting the year's good work--the city of Bell investigation, the enduring commitment to foreign coverage, the spectacular writing chops of some incisive columnists.

But loyalists like me miss our old L.A. Times friend. If this newspaper were a person, it would be the valedictorian of my high school class. A straight-A student, she was the good-looking head cheerleader who always wore a wide smile. From her perch at the top of the high school food chain, she went on to graduate from college and then enjoy a long, successful career as a United Airlines flight attendant.

The L.A. Times is a very, very good newspaper that used to be great. In many comparative contexts, it still is. Every time I go home to Denver, where they no longer have a grownup paper, only a clipping service augmented with the local movie listings and so much Bronco coverage you'll know when the long snapper farts, I fall back in love with the L.A. Times.

But despite love letters from its publisher, my affection sometimes is unrequited, as an ex-employee, as a reader, as a subscriber.

We former employees got a letter earlier this month from Eddy's corporate overseer summarizing the annual reports "for each benefit plan in which you participate." Because people who aren't employees generally don't participate in company benefits, I figured this letter was in error, like the one in 2008, when employees were sent packets containing their individual retirement financial statements. Although the statements corresponded to the name on the envelope, the addresses to which they were sent did not. So everyone got someone else's private and sensitive information. I received the statement for somebody who, I learned after looking up the unfamiliar name in the company directory, worked in the printing plant. My 401(k) statement, luckily, had been sent to a features reporter I knew who returned it to me unopened, a practice I'm sure plenty of others did not respect.

Turns out this year's letter concerned information for Tribune's 2009 401(k) plan. I don't really care about year-old news, but today, precisely one year after being lopped from the Tribune employment rolls, I would like to know when I can have the funds in my cash balance plan. It's my money. I earned it. I want it. But that account is being held hostage to the enduring drama that is Tribune bankruptcy, even though the $40 millionish in 2010 executive bonuses are not. Who do you think needs the money more, Eddy or me?

So, the publisher's "Dear Reader" seduction isn't working too well for me on a couple of fronts. For every claim that "our newsroom has given you, our readers, some of the best journalism anywhere in the world...." I say, yeah, sometimes, but not last week's splashy story about the wild popularity of fantasy football leagues driving up the NFL TV ratings. The reporting on that piece was so slender it was able to maneuver all the way around the huge elephant in the room, right onto Page 1. That elephant is gambling, which is the primary reason professional football is attracting new eyes from fantasy league players, and whose heft was wholly missing from the fluffy Times story pretending to be analysis.

I still like and respect the underachieving valedictorian cheerleader--she's a genuinely nice person who sees the best in everyone. And a good, formerly great newspaper deserves respect just by trying so hard in difficult times. But, like a cheerleader who's nice only to the popular people, a good newspaper devalues its currency with hypocrisy. The lofty L.A. Times sets and expects to reach high standards. It refuses to accept adult advertising, but it's OK with the sports section jumping into bed with a website partner that publishes "The 50 Best Butts in Sports" and "The 20 Most Boobtastic Athletes of All Time." It's OK with having a (former) editor sit on the Pulitzer Prize Board in a year in which it was in contention for several of those prizes, but the paper prohibits its highly qualified and usually objective sports reporters from voting on Hall of Fame nominees, college football rankings or athlete awards. There's nothing wrong with being a flight attendant, Eddy, but please don't ask me to join the frequent flyer program, then serve me cold coffee and powered milk.

The Times loves me because I still subscribe to the print edition, and because other laid-off people like me help Tribune achieve a $600 million cash flow. But sometimes love can look a whole lot like stalking. This month I had seven phone calls within a two-week period from different people all identifying themselves as "with the Los Angeles Times," each wanting to know why I hadn't paid my subscription. I told each that it's paid like clockwork via automatic credit card payment, and that they had my phone number incorrectly listed for a person completely unknown to me, and would they please cease and desist. After calls on successive days I located a person of authority in The Times' Retention and Customer Service Department, who apologized and said the calls were intended for someone in Torrance (where I do not live) who opened an account in August, but has declined to pay. She said she would close the account and remove my name from the file immediately. The next day a guy identifying himself as "with the Los Angeles Times" called and asked, again, for the same guy in Torrance.

I probed and learned that this elephant wasn't in the Retention/Customer Service room, but in Grand Junction, Colo., where the folks at Press-One Customer Care were making calls, they told me, as part of "outbound promotions for the Los Angeles Times." They don't work for the newspaper, they only pretend to.

I want to believe Eddy, I want to stop being annoyed by my daily paper and appreciate that I don't live in newspaper-liberated Denver. "It upsets me so much I had to stop reading the paper," said a friend of mine who still works at The Times and shares my frustration. "Why don't you just stop reading the paper?" I can't. I have to know what's going on, and I like to know what's going on in print. Print is a journey; online, although hassle-free (if you don't expect the search function to work) is a destination. I need the journey as much as the destination. "You have a problem," my friend said. "You need to go to rehab."

A couple of weeks ago I heard that the valedictorian cheerleader had retired from United. Wonder what she's doing now.

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