Wednesday, December 14, 2005

L.A. Times Moves In The Wrong Direction By Killing Last National Editions

As its circulation has nosedived, the L.A. Times has been moving in the wrong direction. While the New York Times built circulation slowly, increasing home distribution of its national edition, the LAT constricted its regional circulation and killed off its national edition.

The final step will come Dec. 22 when the LAT terminates the last 2,000 copies of a truncated national edition it began faxing East when it closed down the full national edition last year.

Even at its height, the LAT's national edition was no match for the New York Times national edition. So often with the LAT, its efforts to grow in recent years were half-assed. The paper's editors and business managers only made a small effort. They never really sought to build Northern California circulation with a decent distribution system. Years ago, even when it had what it called a full national edition, the LAT didn't even try to match NYT circulation in such meccas for Southern California tourists as Yosemite Valley and Ashland, Ore.

Why hasn't the LAT followed through? Time and again in recent years, even before the woebegone California-hating Tribune Co. took over ownership of the LAT, the Times would launch expansions, such as to a San Diego edition, without sufficient efforts to really make them a success.

Even staff layoffs and buyouts have been grossly mishandled. No sooner were a hundred staffers induced or forced to leave that the paper would start hiring again, creeping back up. So the professed object, a smaller total editorial staff, remained elusive, while the human costs to those forced out increased.

It's already happening again. Janet Clayton, the head of Metro, is even now looking for three new staffers to replace valuable staffers who are leaving, Larry Stammer, David Rosenzweig and Claudia Luther. It's clear when one thinks about this that the idea was mainly to get rid of higher-salaried people with experience and replace them with people they didn't have to pay as much.

Quality has nothing to do with what is happening. It's all to save money, even though the termination costs in severance and benefits is considerable.

Meanwhile, certain important beats, like covering the critical gang problems on the South and East Side, have been dropped. The Times has had quite a few gang stories in the last few days, as the Tookie Williams death penalty case focused attention on the gangs. But it's never replaced Jesse Katz on the fulltime gang beat.

I was having lunch last week with Fran Rothschild, long time Superior Court judge on family matters, who has recently become a State Court of Appeals Justice. She was saying that one of the striking impressions she has formed on the Court of Appeals is the huge number of gang cases that take up their time.

Hundreds are being murdered every year in L.A. County and thousands jailed as a result of gang activity, it is a major preoccupation of thoughtful judges, not to mention police and prosecutors. But the L.A. Times, other than occasionally deploring the gang culture, isn't giving the issue nearly the attention it deserves.

Half-assed effort, before finally doing in the last national edition. Half-assed effort on the San Diego Edition. Half-assed effort on the gang story. Half-assed is too often the modus operandi of the L.A. Times. That's too bad. It reminds one a little of the half-assed relief effort the government has been making down in New Orleans.


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