I’m all for a little inside baseball, after all I like politics. But my local paper, the Los Angeles Times, is reading more like an internal company newsletter these days than a big city daily. There’s new management in town, you see, and the wolf-crying reporters and editors are covering their change of fate as if the future of the nation’s second-largest metropolis is at stake.
Here’s a memo to the editors: We, the people of Southern California, do not care who owns the LA Times.
It seems the newsmen in Los Angeles were shocked by the reaction of this week’s sale of the Tribune Company, which owns the Times. With bated breath, they report, “as the sun warmed the city Monday and people here joined the morning rush-hour crush on Chicago’s elevated train, the chatter revolved around one thing: Tribune’s plans to sell the beloved – and legendarily cursed – Cubs after this baseball season.”
Apparently, the good people of Chicago just don’t care who owns their local paper, the Chicago Tribune. In Los Angeles, on the other hand, the sale of the media company to real estate magnate Sam Zell has merited 23 articles here in L.A. on the subject in just three days!
But, hey, guess what, here in Los Angeles…we are as nonplussed as the Chicagoans. And it’s not just because we don’t have the Cubbies and the First Church of Baseball (aka Wrigley Field) to worry about. To get clued to this reality, the folks in the Times newsroom ought to have a look at their own paper. This morning’s edition has a story about the NBC sitcom 30 Rock. Although the show is critically acclaimed, nobody is watching it – and it’s struggling to stay on the air. This is an allegory. As Mickey Kaus likes to point out, people don’t buy the newspaper for it’s journalistic standards. They buy it because there is something compelling to read.
The Times is no longer compelling in a host of other ways. And, as with other complaints about newspapers, this is a situation that’s affected our political discourse here in Los Angeles. We’d rather hear about why our own United States Senator Diane Feinstein was forced to step down from a Committee appointment after it was revealed she was overseeing contracts awarded to companies owned by her husband. That’s not quite the “starring role” the Times must have imagined in its last article mentioning the couple.
It’s no better with the paper’s columnists. If I want to know what George Skelton is going to say, I can subscribe to Steve Maviglio’s press releases and get the anti-Schwarzenegger spin of the day directly to my email box. If I want to know what T.J. Simers has to say in the sport section, I just have to fill in the latest anti-Phil Jackson or Pete Carroll screeds. Even the sports section shares the same contempt for success as the newsroom.
On the opinion pages, the situation is improving but still critical. I say it’s improving because they have a former Reason editor and a month ago, they published a submission of mine. However, flanking my 800 words were an article by the former president of Harvard University and another by a professor from…Harvard University. It’s not as if there aren’t any academic institutions between Spring Street and the Charles River.
When the Times does bring in local voices, it is the same tired crowd we’ve been reading since at least the 1990′s. The paper can create a new political culture in the city by giving a voice to a new generation of chatterati – after all, that’s what’s happened on the web, no? – but it requires the effort to look beyond the stable of writers and activists on whom they have relied for decades.
The next step of course, would be to bring back the “Metro” section and assign their best reporters to covering what is happening in the city – beyond the corridors of City Hall and the County Building. There have been countless stories about homelessness downtown, but it seems Steve Lopez and others on the truly local news beat haven’t taken the effort to walk too far beyond Skid Row, which conveniently abuts their office building, to see that the homeless are now making encampments along the Sunset Strip and across the region.
I could go on. And, like many out here working on the web I could go on and on about the failings of the news business. But the problem is one that, ironically, has been spelled out very clearly by the Times’ new owner: To be appealing to readers, the paper – on- or off-line needs to be relevant to those readers.
The people of Los Angeles don’t much care who owns their local paper – they care whether the paper is readable and relevant to their lives. The Times, if it to succeed under new ownership, needs to put the L.A. back in the L.A. Times.