L.A. Times Circulation Continues Downward Spiral, To 843,432
Although Times publisher Jeff Johnson would somehow like to spin this figure to 869,819, his own media correspondent, Jim Rainey, while avoiding most discussion of the figures in his ill-focused story this morning, accepts the ABC circulation figures and they are shown in the box accompanying his story.
Of the 20 top papers in the country, 18 lost circulation since last year, five of them by a worse percentage than the LAT. Only the New York Times and the Newark Star-Ledger actually gained circulation. The New York Times was up by 0.5% to 1,126,190.
It should first be noted that the New York Times is suffering from the same demographic declines in its own home area that the L.A. Times is. More than half of its total circulation is now in its national editions outside New York. The NYT, realizing the trends, is pitching its national edition with ever-wider home distribution. The Tribune unwisely abandoned the L.A. Times fairly feeble attempts at a national edition, and has dropped home distribution in virtually all areas outside Southern California.
Nationwide, many people are abandoning newspaper reading for the Internet, in some cases reading papers on line. The NYT is also selling some of its product on-line, although today's ABC figures don't show how it is doing with an experiment the rest of the newspaper world is watching.
Besides this, I think we must appreciate these points in considering the L.A. Times downward spiral:
1--The L.A. Times, under Tribune ownership, is saddled with a losing image of outside control, and in California that is deadly. Californians do not like to deal with inferior companies or products. We see that in attendance declines for sports franchises here that have tanked in the past. I think that LAT quality has held up fairly well up to now, with some exceptions noted below, but still many Los Angelenos now think the paper is going ever downward, and this has hurt circulation.
2--Quality has, however, sunk dramatically on the editorial pages, where the newly renamed Sunday section, Current, is a bad product, and where an inconsistent approach, such as we see on today's Special election, has hurt the image of the paper. The L.A. Times needs an editorial page top editor who is from Los Angeles.
3--The cuts in the sports section are a bad mistake. Sports is very important to Californians. Other sections could have been cut without the devastating impression left by the cuts in Sports.
4--The L.A. Times has quite a few writers who seem to be leaning to the other side in the War On Terror. No, the war is not popular, but neither is the America bashing done by several writers. The Calendar section and the Op Ed Page are particular offenders. The editorial pages have actually drifted to the right under Michael Kinsley and Andres Martinez, but in many quarters the Times is still saddled with a leftwing image because of its Bush bashing and stance on such issues as torture and the war. If the editorial page is considered the soul of the paper, and if Calendar is important in Hollywood, capital of the movie industry, it's obvious these two sections have to be arighted before the paper as a whole can hope to recover.
5--John Carroll, the editor for the first five Tribune years, seemed to the Jewish community to be a closet anti-Semite, and many Jews are totally disaffected from the paper. A recent review of a film understanding of suicide bombers in Calendar did not help matters. The Wiesenthal Center in West L.A. remains negative about the Times, despite a very comprehensive obituary of Simon Wiesenthal. The Chandler family, the former owner, by contrast, was popular in the Jewish community.
6. It could be that all the bad news we are getting these days has simply turned people off of reading the news. I know a few people, including some in my own family, who fit this description.
7--Last, but not least, is the poor effort the Tribune owners have made in pursuing circulation. Although the new publisher, Johnson, has talked about a circulation campaign, comparatively little seems to have been done. As the unmourned Mark Willes once said, in this day and age, circulation is a struggle, and to build it, any paper must be devoted to campaigning for it.
Needless to say, if the latest circulation declines are followed by further layoffs and cutbacks, the Times' problems can only get worse. Yet, since the Tribune owners have displayed neither courage nor wisdom, I'm afraid these are to be expected. They won't fire Steve Lopez, but he can't carry the paper all by himself.