I’m being laid off after twenty-four years at the L.A. Times and after thirty-eight years in the business. I spent most of my career as a staff photographer, but I’ve also been an editor now and then.
The decline of the L.A. Times is due mostly to the failure of the members of the Chandler family to exercise even a vestigial shred of stewardship. They should be guiding the Times through an orderly transition to the Internet. They just wanted their money, and now that Sam Zell has given it to them, the wheels are coming off the cart. Zell invented the financial quicksand we’re in at the moment, but our circulation loss is a self-inflicted wound: we stopped covering Southern California.
The old Times Mirror bosses were keenly aware that The New York Times drew half its circulation from outside New York City, but the Los Angeles Times got almost all of its circulation in Southern California. From about 1980 to 2000, the L.A. Times built bureaus in Orange County, the San Fernando Valley, Ventura County, and San Diego. I think we had about 500 reporters and photographers in those zones when Tribune took over.
Those of us who laid awake nights, worrying about whether Mark Willis would wreck the Times during the final Times Mirror years, welcomed the Tribune guys with guarded optimism. Right from the start, they said they didn’t care about circulation the way Times Mirror did. They had some other metric, whatever that meant. No one dared criticize them when they shut down the zones and redeployed those 500 people elsewhere. We simply abandoned the suburbs, and there are a lot of those in Southern California.
The new California section focused on the City of Los Angeles. We covered the L.A. city council and the mayor, the Los Angeles Unified School District, the LAPD, and acted like, by doing so, we were covering politics, schools, and crime in the region. We won fifteen Pulitzer Prizes while we lost a third of our circulation. To be fair, we won Pulitzers on the mess at King Drew Medical Center and massive fires in the region. But, in general, we stopped covering the zones. One day, I pointed out that Antonio Villaraigosa was not, in fact, the mayor of the city I live in and that I really didn’t care about him. It wasn’t appreciated.
No one seemed to care that we stopped covering city council meetings in Oxnard. No one listened when I told them that I was being barraged by complaints from friends that we weren’t covering their high-school sports any more. The steady loss of about 450,000 subscribers was blamed on “do not call” and the Internet. Hardly a soul said that we might be hemorrhaging readers because we stopped covering things they cared about. Our feature sections were urban hip. Nearly a half a million readers weren’t.
This may be just be spitting in the wind. The Internet is killing newspapers. I think the Los Angeles Times could be in a much stronger position to survive if it had been managed better during the last fifteen years, but it may not matter in the end.
I think the answer is something else. Something else will be invented. I suspect that that something else will be on the Internet, or maybe it will be a little community paper, like the one that has sprouted in my town. It’s called The Acorn (honest). I think that something else will involve people covering what the L.A. Times stopped covering: communities. Something else on the Internet will be better designed than the Web site we were saddled with, which isn’t saying much. Something else will cover community opposition to a new big box store.