Refusing To Bleed Out

Posted: Feb 08, 2007 12:01 AM
Refusing To Bleed Out

"I really don't know whether we'll be printing the Times in five years, and you know what? I don't care, either," said New York Times Publisher Arthur Sulzberger Jr. to Haaretz Tuesday.

We don’t care either. The “we” are the one time loyal readers of newspapers. “We” are the “market.” And the market doesn’t “care” about carriages driven by horses, ships with sails, or the Pony Express. The market cares about demand, and demand for newspapers is drying up.

There are many reasons for that “system perturbation” as Pentagon guru Thomas Barnett brands those paradigm-shifting shocks that can hit countries, corporate sectors, or single companies. In the world of newspapers, the endemic hard-left bias of the newsrooms weakened the brand of the MSM so that when the internet arrived and the not-so-loyal customer shed the monthly cost of the unread glop of print on the driveway there was no cushion of dedicated news consumers across the political spectrum to help absorb the blow. Now the papers are sinking into a sea of red ink –victims of their own arrogance and ideological blinkers.

What to do? I wrote on this subject yesterday in very general terms: The papers have to jettison the old guard, and do so quickly.

But they have to do much, much more than hand out watches to the productivity-challenged cohort in their 50s and 60s that populate the upper reaches of management.

They have to change everything, and very quickly. When you are sinking like a stone –and the bigs in Boston and Los Angeles are—trimming a few dozen jobs here or changing the margins of the paper’s size there won’t do the trick.

I like newspapers, and I like journalists. I have contributed to the former since 1979 and have been the latter since 1990. So in that spirit pf a colleague whose medium of the web and radio is doing very well indeed, a few suggestions. They are particular to the Los Angeles Times, but the method can be replicated in any market.

I confess I no longer read the Times. It is dull beyond description. Occasionally one of their “writers” will issue forth with a particularly insipid bit of prose which will be called to my attention and I’ll try and engage the writer, but generally, its too damn dull to care. I suspect that their already plummeting circulation is buoyed by subscribers too lazy to get the number to cancel.

So, what could they do?

First, shift massive resources to the online edition. There are hundreds of reporters at Spring Street and various affiliated locales, but their story quota is, what, three bylines a week? Redirect 50% or more of these staffers to producing two stories a day and fire those who can’t produce. 3,000 to 4,000 words a week isn’t at all difficult, but it does require the work ethic of a college student.

Next, once the story pipeline is filled –all of them being published immediately after editing to the web and not being delayed until the glop edition—identify the best four to six reporters from each section and make them web only. That’s right. Put your best talent in the service of the new medium. Instruct them to pound it out and turn it into editors for a brisk and quick review and then push it out there on to the web. The sole advantage a “news organization” has right now are resources for the production of content. The editors are a dead weight but also a tradition unlikely to be pushed aside because most journalists can’t be trusted not to make absolutely horrific mistakes. So leverage that single advantage –mass—into an online attraction.

If the Times had ten to fifteen continually updated and bylined blogs by their best reporters, I’d be checking those blogs repeatedly during the day. There are five tool reporters on the staffs of every newspaper, but they are being played every third day instead of three or four times a day. Use them. Inform and entertain us!

After the basic revamp is in place, ask the toughest question of all: What can we do that no one else can do? In LA it is the business, first, second, and forever. The Times doesn’t want to be People, but it can be the first and last word on the American culture machine, though it has never seriously tried to be. It cannot compete with the Washington Post on politics and government, but no one can compete with the Times in covering the culture machine in all of its features, if the Times would only try.

Nor could anyone match the paper if it really wanted to cover the biggest state in the union in all of its glorious dysfunction in Sacramento or prodigious productivity in high tech. Nine-tenths of every current issue of the paper consists of stories that high school papers could produce instead of unique content that must be read because it is the best reporting on sectors and stories that only a talented and experienced California-based reporter could find and report fairly and fully.

There are technologies to deploy as well.

Show us how many people click on each story. Talk about the market sorting the wheat from the chaff. If a story is unread online, doesn’t that mean a tree fell in a forest and nobody heard it?

And demand interactivity from your writers, but not in the closeted “I’ll respond to the mail I can handle” fashion that reporters tell themselves distinguishes them for “courage.” If a columnist or reporter gets buried in harsh blowback , publish the blowback (less the vulgarity.) That is transparency. Everything else is spin.

Dump the snores. Who reads the book section, really? Review books that people read, and do it online.

Don’t publish game summaries of the Lakers, Clippers, Dodgers and Angels –who reads those? The sports junkies got their news hours ago. Give the reader commentary, rumor, and calumny, and lots of readers’ boards.

When it comes to “opinion,” publish most of the paper’s commentary from writers inside of zip codes in which you deliver. Drop the anonymous pulse-killers of the unsigned editorials. Give them bylines or let them go. And please, no more out-of-state professors. The national writers publish on national forums, but the local voices need the exposure and bring with them local audiences. Obscure academics from faraway cities don’t need –and local readers don’t want—a chance to impress on the west coast. In Los Angeles there are hundreds of talented writers the papers routinely ignore. Why?

Finally, let me introduce you to Patterico, Kevin Roderick, Bill Bradley and Cathy Seipp.

Here are four extraordinary talents in your backyard, each with a significant readership the paper needs.

Patterico is the greatest ombudsman a paper never paid,. Imagine the huge credibility you would gain if you matched his DA salary plus 25%, and told him “Swing away” at That. Would. Be. Bold.

Roderick ticks me off at least once a month, but he’s the go-to-guy for LA, the single best city-specific blog in America, and you are trying to invent what he has already perfected. Why? The old guard is gone. You don’t have to inherit their mistakes. Go pay him what he wants and brand him as the Times’ own.

Bradley is by far the best political reporter in California. He’s interesting and connected and doesn’t care where the chips fall.

And Seipp --she is read and loved by center-rightists across the Southland. Her account of her battle with cancer is moving and her commentaries on all other subjects funny and on point. This isn’t hard. Buy her blog and brand the paper as willing to bring on board the talent it manifestly doesn’t have and the appeal it cannot manufacture from within.

The Los Angeles Times could be a great, great news organization –if it would only give up pretending to be a great newspaper.