How the LA Times aims to go global

AP Photo/Richard Vogel

The Los Angeles Times is about to adopt a new strategy–again.

The paper has long cycled between different approaches, many of them represented in just the past year. Publisher Austin Beutner was abruptly fired in September despite receiving high marks for a renewed focus on state and local coverage; his California-centric vision clashed with Times owner Tribune Publishing’s national model. The newspaper has since seen two different publishers. And Tribune, with a new top shareholder calling the shots, announced on Wednesday new plans to reorient the paper into a more global-facing media company.

The strategy will add new international entertainment content on top of the Times’ existing coverage. The publicly traded Tribune will finance the creation of seven bureaus in global, “entertainment oriented” cities, many of them in fast-developing economic centers. The Times will also be broken off as an individual segment of the Tribune, separated from the chain’s other papers when its corporate owners report quarterly earnings.

“As the other brands may have issues because they’re so print-dependent, the LA Times is not,” Michael Ferro, who became Tribune’s top shareholder and chairman in February, said on Bloomberg TV Thursday. “We want to cover entertainment and lifestyle in all the media capitals of the world—what’s going on in fashion, restaurants, film, and theater, and see how they compare to each other.” 

Any sign of expansion is welcome news for an organization reeling from a decade of retrenchment, and many observers have long called for the newspaper, which has a storied history of foreign reporting, to own coverage of the Pacific Rim. The new outposts announced Wednesday have a general geographic focus on Latin America and Asia: Hong Kong, Lagos, Mexico City, Moscow, Mumbai, Rio de Janeiro, and Seoul. But the extent to which the Times will build out the bureaus—let alone whether they will venture into hard-news territory—is uncertain. The new international push also comes after years of atrophy among the paper’s existing roster abroad.

It seems likely that a well-staffed Times bureau could attract a sizeable audience in any of these cities. Less certain is whether entertainment content can be monetized to move the needle against continued declines in print revenue, diminishing ad rates online, and relatively paltry digital subscription numbers. While a globally focused New York Times has shifted its business model toward more circulation revenue, Tribune is betting that it can leverage new tools for increased payoffs through digital advertising—a tall task.

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“We believe we can monetize each unique visitor significantly more than we do today, and grow our unique visitor base,” CEO Justin Dearborn said in Tribune’s earnings call Wednesday. He trumpeted Tribune’s new technology arm, Tronc, which aims to analyze reader behavior in real time in hopes of boosting audience engagement through curated content and then delivering more targeted ads.

In one sense, this is a continuation of an earlier strategy. Under Beutner, the Times began cementing an editorial and business focus on topically themed “communities of interest.” The goal was to organize education or political news, for example, into subject-specific verticals online—and to repeatedly bring to that gathering place the highly engaged readers that remaining advertisers crave. Creating such constituencies in California also seemed to create a logical pathway to convert regular readers into digital subscribers.

Tribune is now attempting to scale the strategy by creating an international “community of interest” around entertainment news. Los Angeles is as logical a capital as any for this global constellation of pop culture content. But it’s harder to see how to turn these new audiences into paying customers, and Tribune didn’t outline a path to do so this week. 

Tribune will pursue this course in part through LA.com, a yet-to-be launched digital property to “celebrate Los Angeles and extend the reach of the Los Angeles Times brand.” The size and ambitions of this culture-focused venture likewise remain hazy—it’s possible that the site may be a sort of laboratory to explore what’s possible without legacy media constraints. But recent rumblings of yet another ownership change have complicated the Times-led efforts to launch the product, according to staffers with knowledge of the paper’s strategy.

The Times will see a modicum of stability on that front—at least for now. On Wednesday, Tribune Publishing’s board unanimously rejected a proposal by Gannett to purchase the chain for $815 million, though in Thursday’s interview with Bloomberg, Ferro left the door open for a more lucrative offer. 

Ferro hasn’t been quiet about his grand vision for the company. “The LA Times is a sleeping giant,” Ferro told the Los Angeles Times last month. “It’s on a par with The New York Times and other international publications, that no one has properly cared for, and we are going to do that. 

He’s right to view the organization as Tribune’s crown jewel. Web traffic has eclipsed 50 million unique visitors a month, according to internal metrics, and Times journalists produce compelling and important journalism across topics.

But the Times is also recovering from a decade of bloodletting. Just last year, about 90 employees departed the paper in a round of buyouts targeting its most experienced journalists. Total headcount has shrunk to around 500 or less, not even half of The New York Times. The resurgent Washington Post likewise has far more firepower.

The Los Angeles Times can perhaps outgun these competitors in global entertainment content. But to expand these ambitions any further would be a much bigger leap, especially so given the years lost to mismanagement during the decade-long, industry wide digital transition. Ferro’s Tribune has indeed set a course for the Times. Whether it wakes a sleeping giant is another question entirely.

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David Uberti is a CJR staff writer and senior Delacorte fellow. Follow him on Twitter @DavidUberti.