the kicker

NYT On The LAT’s Community Relations Problem

January 24, 2011

The front page of Monday’s New York Times business page pays a backhanded compliment to its West Coast rival with the story “Despite Distinctions, Los Angeles Times Loses Standing at Home.” Despite its award-winning writing, thirteen (!) foreign bureaus, and consistently solid reporting “despite all the bloodletting” in the newsroom, the story says, the Times’s readers just aren’t happy.

An accompanying photo features a woman holding a newspaper with pursed lips. High up in the text of the article we learn the reason for her sourpuss:

On a recent weekday evening, Edie Frère, owner of a stationery store in the city’s quaint Larchmont Village section, wistfully recalled reading The Times as a young girl, captivated by the old Hollywood starlets and socialites who graced the society pages.

“We need a paper that’s more, and this is less,” said Ms. Frere, 66. “I think it’s just not a world-class paper, no matter how you cut it. It used to be a world-class paper.”

That pretty much sums up the argument for the paper’s “community relations” problem: a collection of comments and anecdotes from disgruntled and nostalgic Los Angeles Times readers. Another:

“When I came here back in ’74, it would take me all day to read the paper. Now it takes me 10 minutes — tops,” said Quintin Cheeseborough, 57, who is self-employed and comes to the Los Angeles Central Library occasionally to read The Times. On a recent morning, he was reading The Financial Times and The Wall Street Journal, but not The Los Angeles Times.

Sign up for CJR's daily email

And another:

Harvey Levine, 48, a television stage manager who lives on the city’s West Side, ended his subscription after unread copies began piling up at home. “The L.A. Times should be the paper that I trust and go to daily, and it’s not,” said Mr. Levine, a native of Canada who as a young man dreamed of a career in Hollywood and bought copies of the weekend Times in Toronto.

“I know they have a lot of really good writers and they win lots of awards, but I thought it just wasn’t enough,” he said.

The story offers various reasons for readers’ dismay: the recent sale of the Times to a corporate owner from Chicago, the closing of several local versions across the city, and cutbacks in the founding family’s financial contributions to the city’s cultural life. But what’s the evidence that such a widespread feeling of resignation exists among the Times’s formerly loyal subscribers?

A halving of weekday circulation since 2000? That decline isn’t surprising, considering the changes to news reading habits in the past decades, and it doesn’t necessarily mean that the paper’s readers all think it’s terrible. A letter of complaint from the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors about an ad that appeared on the paper’s front page? Everyone who has worked at a newspaper knows that someone’s always sending in a letter of complaint about something. A handful of middle-aged readers who say their hometown paper “ain’t what it used to be”? Show me an institution somewhere, anywhere, that doesn’t inspire this kind of grumbling.

Update: The Times‘s public editor Art Brisbane wrote a response to several complaints the paper received about this story.

Lauren Kirchner is a freelance writer covering digital security for CJR. Find her on Twitter at @lkirchner