Sunday, November 20, 2005

Lack Of Internal Discipline Helped Lead To L.A. Times Layoffs

I noticed that as of the beginning of the latest buyouts and layoffs at the L.A. Times, the newspaper had a total announced editorial staff of 1,032.

But this staff, in all the buyouts and layoffs that followed Otis Chandler's giving up as publisher, never amounted to much over 1,100, if memory serves me.

What has happened repeatedly is that the Times staff would be brought down to about 1,000, but it would then be allowed to creep back up toward 1,100 through new hires.

In other words, the executives of the paper no sooner pared the staff than they started hiring new people. The buyouts cost the paper quite a bit, but they were used more as a means of ridding the paper of the unwanted, and in some cases even wanted, staff members and then as soon as it was done, new hirees were brought on. So under this cycle, nothing was gained. There was no discipline invoked to let the paper live within its means.

The old days, when the Times had the reputation of being a lifelong guarantee of employment for the staff, almost no matter what, were allowed to lapse and the Chandler family policy of buying labor peace and employee happiness through the generousity of their employment terms and especially the terrific benefits, was done away with.

This started happening when David Laventhol become publisher, and it gradually became the way of doing business, but it was not until the Tribune Co. bought the paper that poor treatment of employees really intensified. As soon as the Tribune took over, it embarked on a policy of cutting costs and, they intended, building profits.

But neither John Carroll nor Dean Baquet really accepted this policy. They still had ambitions for the paper that were not shared in Chicago, so no sooner was the staff pared, but new people were brought on, and often at generous salaries.

Carroll in particularly did not, until it was too late, seem to appreciate the strong desire of the Chicago Tribune executives to treat the Times as a poor stepson of the Tribune. Even as late as last spring, Carroll told the late David Shaw that he felt confident he would be able to keep Chicago at bay. Nothing had happened so far to induce him to leave, he said.

When he found he couldn't effectively resist Chicago, that's when he quit, and now Baquet has found he has very little leverage at all, despite the negotiations he entered into with Chicago.

I was reminded last week by Frank Cruz that almost as soon as they took over, the Tribune executives told the staff they would let Times circulation fall to what they considered a more natural level, although I'm sure no one at the time foresaw the 30% decline that has taken place.

Now, things are in a downward spiral, and longtime staffers are finding themselves, in quite a few cases, laid off. Even so, the paper is still out there hiring people like Joel Stein and Andres Martinez, who cannot match the talent of past days.

It's too bad. When will it end? Not, in my view, until, there is a new, more ambitious owner who values California above Illinois.

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