What does the death of the LA Times Local Section mean?

Joe Mathews
Connecting California Columnist and Editor, Zócalo Public Square, Fellow at the Center for Social Cohesion at Arizona State University and co-author of California Crackup: How Reform Broke the Golden State and How We Can Fix It (UC Press, 2010)

The only thing surprising about the announcement that the LA Times is killing its local news section is that anyone was surprised. Sam Zell, the owner of the paper’s parent company, Tribune (yes, I know that an employee stock ownership plan is the nominal owner, but the ESOP is a tax dodge and employees have no power whatsoever), and his pirate crew of lieutenants have a near perfect record of making stupid moves. This is just another one.

This is also another case of Zell and team doing the exact opposite of what they said they would do. Zell took over a little more than a year ago – yes, it feels like it’s been longer – saying he wouldn’t cut because newspapers couldn’t cut their way to the future. As soon as he had control, he immediately began cutting. Zell also profanely declared in an infamous meeting in the Times’ now defunct Washington bureau, where I worked as a reporter at the time, that readers didn’t care about national news and that the paper’s future was in local news. (He suggested, insanely, that there was a bigger audience for coverage of the Santa Ana city council than there was for stories on national affairs). So it was only a matter of time before local news was gutted.

Losing the local news section, of course, is not the only bad news here. From what I can tell from the cryptic and tardy announcement of the changes (memo to the Times publisher: you should share decisions like this with your readers first, as soon as you make them), the local news will come to dominate the front section. That will push national and foreign news deeper into section. You can bet there will be less space for such news in the process. You also can be sure that there will be further reductions in coverage of national and foreign news. This is tragic—for readers, for reporters, for the world. Once you close bureaus and lose reporters, it’s next to impossible to get them back.

But none of this is news. The real questions are about the future: Is it possible to save the LA Times? Or is there some way to build a replacement?

I’m a pessimist by nature, but I have a bit of optimism about the Times’ future. Despite the constant cuts, an extremely tough base of reporters and editors remains. (There’s probably no tougher group of people working anywhere in American journalism). And the bankruptcy of Tribune offers an opportunity. If creditors use their leverage to demand that Zell sell off the pieces of the company – or to demand that Zell and crew be removed from control of the paper – then the LA Times could have a new beginning. In the bankruptcy, nearly all of the massive debt that Zell incurred to buy Tribune – which is the number 1 reason (not the Internet, not the economy) for the constant cuts in the journalistic product – is likely to be removed from the company. And Tribune would have something of a fresh start.

But if Zell and crew remain in charge, the Times itself may not survive. It’s crucial that those who care about the Times and other Tribune properties use the leverage of the bankruptcy. Previous opportunities have been missed. When Zell was buying the company, he had to get the Federal Communications Commission to sign off on the deal because Tribune, in violation of a federal ban, owns newspapers and TV stations in the same market. That should have been the moment for employees and others to block the debt-heavy deal and save the company from disaster. But no one did. I personally urged officials of the Newspaper Guild (I was a member during a previous job at the Baltimore Sun), which was making an effort to organize the newsroom at the time, to try to block the deal in Washington.

Instead, the Guild, believing that Zell would somehow be better than Tribune’s previous corporate managers, did nothing. Los Angeles’ labor leaders, who love to talk about their commitment to saving middle class jobs, also sat on their hands. Business leaders, with a few notable exceptions, also failed to fight for the local paper. In darker moments, I wonder if powerful people of all stripes aren’t happy to see one of the few institutions that can challenge power — however imperfectly the Times has done that – suffer and even depart from the scene.

I personally don’t think the Times is replaceable. But it may have to be replaced. And that will require Los Angeles, its leaders and its journalists to do something we have little experience doing—come together and build new institutions. About this, I’m not at all optimistic. Our business community is not particularly public spirited. Remember that it was the Chandlers, pillars of Southern California, who greedily sold their inheritance first to the Tribune Company, and then forced the sale to Zell. And it’s hard to have much faith in the three billionaires (Broad, Geffen, Burkle) who have been talked about as saviors of the Times. They had their chance to do something, and didn’t step up.

There are small, isolated examples of journalists who are replacing some of what’s been lost – a web site here, a non-profit project here – but not enough to fill the gaping hole the Times will leave if it’s run out of business. There’s an opportunity for our community to do something great, if we can figure out how to seize it.

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