It's been five years since the Chandler family sold the Los Angeles Times to Chicago-based media conglomerate the Tribune Company. In that time, the paper has been viewed as a test case on how to reconcile journalistic imperatives with the bottom-line pressures imposed by a parent corporation. Brooke talks to Kevin Roderick, a blogger at LAObserved.com and former Times editor, about the fallout.
BOB GARFIELD This is On the Media. I'm Bob Garfield.
BROOKE GLADSTONE:: And I'm Brooke Gladstone. This is the season we give thanks for our families. And there is a media angle here, because though all newspapers have gone under the knife, papers that are mostly family-owned, like the New York Times, the Washington Post and the Wall Street Journal, have at least some confidence the budget cuts won't cripple them. But the Los Angeles Times lost its family when the Chandlers sold the paper, along with the whole Times-Mirror Company, in March of 2000, to the Tribune Company. And since then, that confidence has taken a dive. Its well-loved editor, John Carroll, quit this summer, largely because of bottom-line pressures. There have been waves of layoffs and some high-profile firings, most notably of editorial page editor Michael Kinsley and long-time liberal columnist Robert Scheer. But perhaps worse, the paper is in the throes of an identity crisis because its new owners live in Chicago and don't seem to get the California vibe, much less the paper's ambitions. Kevin Roderick worked for two and a half decades at the Times as both reporter and editor. Now he blogs at LAObserved.com, where he closely tracks his former employers. Kevin, welcome to the show.
KEVIN RODERICK:: Good to be here, Brooke.
BROOKE GLADSTONE:: So the prestige of the L.A. Times seems to bounce around. One year it's perceived as a bit of a joke. Another year it's seen as a national treasure, piling up the Pulitzer Prizes. So what do you make of the fluctuating reputation of the Times in recent times?
KEVIN RODERICK:: Well, the paper's reputation is a little bit of both. During the time that the Tribune has owned the paper, they've won at least a dozen Pulitzer Prizes, but at the same time, the circulation has dropped to the lowest level it has been at since 1968. And in that time, the Southern California region has grown tremendously; it's almost doubled in population. And the Times has not been able to capture that population and make them newspaper readers. And the Times has put a lot of its resources and ambition into national coverage. It has a lot of national bureaus, it has foreign bureaus all over the world. It covers the Iraq war intensely. But here at home, the paper has been struggling to figure out just what is the right way to cover - it's really two, three-hundred cities sprawling across six counties, more diverse than anywhere in the country by far. And the Tribune Company, after it bought the paper, decided to get away from even pretending to be the local paper.
BROOKE GLADSTONE:: How did it get away from it? By pulling people out of the local bureaus or by closing local editions? [OVERLAPPING VOICES]
KEVIN RODERICK:: Yes. It closed local editions or scaled them back dramatically. It used to be that the Times had a staff in Orange County, which is the suburban area to the south of Los Angeles, that rivaled the size of the staff of the Orange County Register. Well, no more. That staff has been cut back dramatically. About 40 percent of the City of Los Angeles is a region called the San Fernando Valley. The Times had a large staff there as well, and has cut that back to just a fraction of what it was before. And all of these things end up giving the readers less and less of the local coverage that they can't get anywhere else.
BROOKE GLADSTONE:: What were the strengths and the weaknesses of the L.A. Times when it was still family-owned, back before 2000?
KEVIN RODERICK:: Well, when it was family-owned - and even when it was family-owned, I should say that it was publicly owned. The stock was sold on the stock market. But the core ownership was still residing in the Chandler family. And at that time it did have very much of a Southern California rootedness, and there was not the pressure to deliver a high stock price for Wall Street analysts that there is today. That's really what's driving the cutbacks across the Tribune Company. Their papers still make plenty of money. There's a lot of industries that would love to make the double-digit return on investment that newspapers do. But the Tribune Company is being hit by analysts who say the industry is losing readership, it's losing advertising dollars, so show us how you're going to reshape yourself to get ready for the future. That's what's going on here. The Times right now is in the throes of a buy-out and layoff process that's going to see apparently about 85 members of the editorial staff leaving before the end of November.
BROOKE GLADSTONE:: And I understand that'll bring the total of layoffs to about 200 in the last four years.
KEVIN RODERICK:: Yes. This is the second round this year, and there have been a number since the Tribune has taken over.
BROOKE GLADSTONE:: And there is a new editor. The much-beloved old editor left partly because of all the cuts he was being asked to make. The new editor, Dean Baquet, was a protégé of the old editor, John Carroll, and he's much liked by his staff. But are his hands tied?
KEVIN RODERICK:: Well, you know, he did come in as sort of the savior in the staff's view. He was popular, and people saw in him a force who would stand up against the bean counters in Chicago. Well, that only lasted for a couple of months.
BROOKE GLADSTONE:: Baquet's been quoted in the Wall Street Journal recommending shorter articles, more entertainment coverage and a gossip column in the paper.
KEVIN RODERICK:: If the Times could position itself as the authoritative observer of the entertainment industry, that would be all to the good. And a local gossip column might be good as well, depending on the level of reporting integrity that they require. What Baquet has said is he would consider having a reported gossip column, more like the Reliable Sources column in the Washington Post than page six of the New York Post, I think.
BROOKE GLADSTONE:: [CHUCKLES] I'm thinking that listeners may wonder why are we focusing on the L.A. Times' problems if those problems are so typical of the industry as a whole? But there are certain things that are particular to the Los Angeles Times that actually hold a lesson for the rest of the industry. How vital, for instance, local reporting really is.
KEVIN RODERICK:: The Times has tried to compete with its national image, and that was part of what was behind the hiring of Michael Kinsley to be the editorial page editor a year ago. He was seen as someone who would raise the profile of the Times in the national conversation. Well, the Times is out of Los Angeles. It really doesn't have the likelihood that it will ever be thought of as the national newspaper. And people these days have plenty of sources for national and even foreign news. They don't have very many sources for local news that's of any depth about the region where they live or the town where they live. And that's an area where the Los Angeles Times could shine and has shone before, and the new editor, Dean Baquet, has started to address that and said, "Well, you know, I agree that we've gotten too far away from being a paper that speaks with an authoritative Los Angeles voice," and he says he's going to try to fix that.
BROOKE GLADSTONE:: Kevin, thank you very much.
KEVIN RODERICK:: Thank you, Brooke.
BROOKE GLADSTONE:: Kevin Roderick is a contributor to "Los Angeles" magazine and a blogger at LAObserved.com.