Saturday, October 08, 2005

Auletta Article In New Yorker A Good Look At Times-Tribune Rift

The article appearing in this week's New Yorker magazine on the bitter disputes between the Los Angeles Times and its Chicago Tribune Co. owners provides possibly the most comprehensive look yet at the rift.

By the seasoned reporter Ken Auletta, the article, "Money and the Future of the Los Angeles Times," makes it abundantly clear that the publishers of the inferior Tribune are ill-qualified to be running a quality paper like the Times.

Auletta has done a good job interviewing the principals on both sides, and what emerges is that the Tribune executives have neither the desire nor the capacity to maintain the Times in its present status. If they persevere with their policies, the Times could be destroyed.

On the other hand, the new Times editor, Dean Baquet, comes across as both wise and determined. Baquet already commands such prestige that he is an important bulwark against the silly plans of diminishing the Tribune has for his paper.

If the Tribune wants to hold on to the Times, the obvious solution, as I've suggested before, is to move the company's headquarters to Los Angeles, make it the Times rather than the Tribune Co., and operate the Times as the flagship newspaper. Then, the cost-cutting could take place at the Tribune. Both the present CEO, Dennis FitzSimons, and the President of Tribune Publishing, Scott Smith, who is not even a newspaperman, could be dropped out over Des Moines or Omaha on the way West.

Barring such a course, the Tribune should sell the Times before it ruins the paper with ever more drastic cutbacks.

The Auletta article is also high on John Carroll, the Times editor who resigned during the summer in protest against the "incessant cost-cutting" by FitzSimons and Smith.

Going either unmentioned or underemphasized, however, are some of the mistakes Carroll made, such as neglecting local news, naming the ersatz liberal Michael Kinsley as the largely absentee editorial page editor of the Times, or maintaining foolishly cool relations with Los Angeles' Jewish community. (Kinsley has been unceremoniously fired since Carroll left).

Also undiscussed in any depth is the poor circulation strategy immediately adopted by the Tribune at the Times as soon as it took over in 2000, which was to drop any pretense at being a paper serving more than just Southern California.

With the trends in the newspaper business nationwide, it seems fairly obvious that for a paper like the Times to maintain its circulation, it must sell either nationally or throughout an entire region such as the West. Instead, the Tribune immediately began retreating and circulation has fallen 20% in just five years, one of the worst hits taken by any newspaper. It was over 1.1 million when the Tribune took over; the latest figures show it hovering just above 900,000.

Since Baquet has taken the reins, the Times has been doing better with local news. It has begun to pay greater attention to both the faltering Schwarzenegger Administration in the state capital and Los Angeles' tremendous rapid transit needs, to mention just two areas.

No one could read the Auletta article without gathering quickly that the relations between Chicago and Los Angeles are so fractious that it's better if the two go their separate ways. Auletta does not discuss it, but already there have been attempts by outsiders, such as entertainment mogul David Geffen, to buy the Times.


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