Perhaps no major U.S. paper has been under siege longer than the Los Angeles Times, and this week brought yet another insult. New York Times media reporter Richard Pérez-Peña has been covering this historic retrenchment.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: This is On the Media. I'm Brooke Gladstone. BOB GARFIELD: And I'm Bob Garfield. If the newspaper industry is currently under assault, and by just about every measure it is, no major paper has been under siege longer than The Los Angeles Times. A succession of top editors has come and gone in the last few years, all citing a frustration with management over layoffs and other budget cuts. But the cuts keep coming, and nobody can predict where this will all lead or when it might end.
New York Times media reporter Richard Perez-Pena has been covering this historic retrenchment. Richard, welcome back to the show.
RICHARD PEREZ-PENA: Thank you, Bob. BOB GARFIELD: Nobody is immune to this crisis in newspaper publishing. Your paper itself just went through a round of layoffs. But let's talk about the current brouhaha over The L.A. Times Magazine, once a weekly, now a monthly, but also now something else altogether. What has happened? RICHARD PEREZ-PENA: Well, I think what people need to understand is that the tradition in American newspapers is that the advertising side of the operation and the newsroom side are entirely separate.
The L.A. Times Magazine is going to move from the control of the newsroom, which is where most newspaper magazines are, to the control of the business side. Now, what that'll actually mean for its operations and its content, we don't know, but people who are used to that tradition of true separation between the newsroom and the business side are made uneasy by it. BOB GARFIELD: Mm. Sam Zell, who controls the Tribune Company, himself has made it quite clear that he has a less than traditional view of how to run a newspaper properly. Can you tell me about some of the things that he has said and done? RICHARD PEREZ-PENA: Well, most recently what he said is that all of the newspapers in Tribune Company have to become spicier, flashier, easier to read, more local in focus, with more graphics, more charts and statistics, that sort of thing. You know, that's not a new idea. USA Today sort of pioneered that on a national scale 25 years ago, and a lot of people have copied it.
It's a new idea for a paper like The Los Angeles Times, which always thought of itself as this very sober and serious newspaper that covered the nation and the world.
But beyond that, what Zell has done over the last six months or so is really to attempt to shake people up, to give them a sense of urgency, and inevitably saying pretty outrageous things. BOB GARFIELD: He made a remark to the Washington Bureau of The Times shortly after he took over that just freaked everybody out. RICHARD PEREZ-PENA: As it was repeated to me, the comment was, we have 45 people in Washington, D.C. and 6 in Orange County, and it ought to be the other way around. I mean, it's essentially saying to a group of your most prestigious people that many of their jobs shouldn't exist. BOB GARFIELD: However one might feel about Sam Zell and his foul mouth and his, let's say, lack of diplomacy among his own staff, clearly the business he owns and the industry he's in now are in extremis. RICHARD PEREZ-PENA: Mm-hmm. [AFFIRMATIVE] BOB GARFIELD: You know, maybe in this new world the idea that he has floated of half ads, half editorial content is simply a reality that we're all going to have to live with. RICHARD PEREZ-PENA: Tribune Company had just under a billion dollars in operating profit last year but not much in the way of income. And the reason is they had 12.8 billion – well, they now have 12.8 billion dollars in debt that they're carrying. So they have to spend almost a billion dollars a year just to keep up that debt.
So this is a group of newspapers that, in and of themselves, are making money, but they're being asked not only to cover the cost of operations, deliver profit for the corporation, but also to carry the cost of this enormous debt.
Well, why do they have the enormous debt? Because back in 2000, Tribune Company bought Times-Mirror and then in 2007, Sam Zell took Tribune Company private. These were deals done with borrowed money.
They didn't build any presses. They didn't buy any computer systems. They didn't build new buildings. They didn't add staff. This was money that added no value to the company. It just saddled it with enormous debt. BOB GARFIELD: I want to go from The L.A. Times to another newspaper that's undergoing some wrenching times, and that's The Washington Post, which just bought out more than 100 editorial employees, mainly its most senior editorial employees, in order to deal with its ever-reducing profits. RICHARD PEREZ-PENA: Well, the scale of the reduction at The Post is not the same. At its peak several years ago, the Post had a newsroom staff something over 900 people. The Los Angeles Times had, I think, close to 1200. These days they're both somewhere in the neighborhood of 700.
But, in addition, The Washington Post has had management for decades, going back to three generations of the Graham family that, in every action they took, gave the impression that they understood what journalism is supposed to be about, that the quality of the product mattered to them a great deal. And they, like the Chandler family at The L.A. Times, invested in really high-quality journalism.
The Grahams are still in charge at The Washington Post Company. The Chandlers are long gone from The Los Angeles Times. And the new ownership of Tribune, which took hold just in December, under Sam Zell, these are people who have no background in journalism. So people are asking whether they understand what the values and the ethics are supposed to be.
Michael Kinsley wrote a hilarious column in Slate the other day that said, well, Tribune wants to make an equal amount of space for the ads and the content. If you go to zero on both and stop [BOB LAUGHS] publishing the newspaper, then that's equal, and you don't even have to pay the reporters. BOB GARFIELD: Yeah, the problem isn't editorial ratio. It's the lack of advertising [LAUGHS], to begin with.
RICHARD PEREZ-PENA: Exactly. The fundamental problem that the business faces is the decline in advertising revenue. Everything else that the business is experiencing pales in comparison to that.
A lot of The Tribune Company employees I talk to say, we hear a plan for trimming the newsroom. We hear a plan for trimming the number of pages. We hear a plan for cutting costs. We don't hear a plan for increasing ad revenue. BOB GARFIELD: Do you see any good news out there? RICHARD PEREZ-PENA: Well, to quote Dwight Eisenhower about Richard Nixon, if you gave me enough time, I might be able to come up with some. BOB GARFIELD: [LAUGHING] All right, Richard. Thank you very much.
RICHARD PEREZ-PENA: You're welcome. BOB GARFIELD: Richard Perez-Pena is a media reporter for The New York Times.