Sunday, April 03, 2005

Oil Price Crisis May Dictate Focus Of LAT Business Section

Some experts are predicting a "super-spike" in oil prices, with the high going to the $105-a-barrel level, before declining demand sends the price down once more. This could mean a gasoline price reaching $5 a gallon at the California pump before the summer is out, with all the ramifications that would mean for Los Angeles life.

If this takes place, and not all agree it will, it seems clear that the L.A. Times business section, under the new direction of Russ Stanton, will have oil prices as its main story for the foreseeable future.

For the Times' business section, this concentration would be to the good. Under the relatively brief tenure of Rick Wartzman, the business section drifted further toward irrelevance. Under an oil crisis, it at least would be relevant to the concerns of most of the readers.

I was told last week that it was Times Managing Editor Dean Baquet who advised Wartzman, when he replaced Bill Sing as business editor, that he ought to focus the business pages more on California stories, (oil being an international story). If this is correct, then Baquet made a mistake. The New York Times business pages meanwhile kept their eyes on the ball; their concentration was on malfeasance by CEOs, and they always played the oil pricing story for the very important one it has been and is today. Even the forecast of a $105-a-barrel price spike was relegated to only the lower part of the L.A. Times business page, while it was the lead story on the New York Times business page.

It seems obvious in retrospect that oil prices already have kept the markets down or even, while holding employment down and slightly (thus far) spurring inflation. All these trends will be exacerbated if the "super-spike" in oil prices now proceeds, and Stanton would have little choice but to follow it with the sizable daily stories it would deserve.

Given the size of the business staff, and the feeling in business itself that it has not been doing the job it should for Times readers, under its new editor, business should have both the resources and will power to do a better job.

And a better job covering a crisis will definitely help the newspaper maintain circulation.

The Wartzman era, encouraged by Baquet or not, is over. We can't help but be glad that the Stanton era has begun. He has every incentive to do a better job, focusing on the crisis that may now only intensify..

Parenthetically, American relations with Venezuela and the unfriendly Chavez regime there may too become subject to more attention, both on the foreign and business pages. Venezuela is an important oil supplier of the U.S.

And, at the same time, the four-corner struggle for energy resources in the Far East, between China, Japan, Russia and the U.S. at no little distance may also command more attention.

I once gently mentioned to Wartzman he ought to be paying more attention on the business pages to the oil business. He kind of laughed it off. Stanton won't be able to, thank goodness.

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