Monday, April 16, 2007

First Combined Opinion And Book Review Is Mediocre

Jim Newton's work is cut out for him. The first combined Opinion and Book Review section in the L.A. Times yesterday was bland and mediocre. It is clear that regardless of the design, it will take more imagination to make it a success.

Altogether, as a former editor of the Times remarked to me last night, the combined section represents a reduction in the total news hole devoted to these vital subjects. It represents another step in the Tribune company's cost cutting that is not in the interest of the readers. It is a depressing confirmation that the inept Dennis FitzSimons, CEO of the company, is still in charge, and continues to run his newspapers into the ground. It also shows that the Tribune appointees as publisher and editor of the Times, David Hiller and James O'Shea, are not successfully resisting his depredations at the newspaper.

That said, it is true that producing the Book Review as a flip side to Opinion may actually improve the readership of Book Review. At least, it is appearing in a more obvious place in the Sunday paper.

However, you would have thought the editors would have begun the new product with better reviews and articles. You would have thought they would have devoted much greater effort to see that they got off to the best possible start.

The lead article in the Opinion section, by Ruben Martinez, a professor in the English Department at Loyola Marymount University, was serviceable, but not so remarkable as to justify the lead position. This is the kind of article that might well have appeared on an Op Ed page, although the new Opinion section no longer has an Op Ed page, representing a distinct loss and taking the paper back 40 years.

There was a decent article inside about House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, but that was about it. On a week when so many things were happening in both the War on Terror and here at home, there was little or no attempt to bring salient features in the news to bear in the new section. The editorial, one instead of the several that used to run in the larger section, was pedestrian.

The Times is going to have to do better than this. Sam Zell, the prospective new owner, should take David Hiller, the Times publisher, who is directly responsible for the editorial sections, by the scruff of the neck and tell him: "You can't rest on your laurels of firing Dean Baquet and creating this mediocrity. Get your act together or get out."

Meanwhile, Newton can't take over too soon.

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This is a big and sad day in the news, with the tragic shootings at Virginia Tech University, the worst in U.S. history. All the major cable channels -- CNN, Fox and MSNBC -- are going at it full time, and the newspaper web sites are leading with it. The L.A. Times Web site has a good story, but it took me several minutes to access the web site, as distinct from the New York Times Web site, which came to the screen immediately. The problem may indicate there is less capacity for access to the LAT Web site than the NYT.

Already, some idiotic Virginia official is saying that despite the shootings, we don't need gun control in this country. For shame!

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Congratulations to Kenneth Weiss, Usha McFarling and Rick Loomis of the L.A. Times for winning the Pulitzer Prize today for their articles on the distressed state of the world's oceans. (Usha has left the Times, however, to care for her two small children).

Also, congratulations to Jonathan Gold of the L.A. Weekly for winning a Pulitzer for criticism for his outstanding restaurant reviews. Gold, of course, used to review inexpensive restaurants for the L.A. Times. I wonder why he's no longer with the paper. This, incidentally was the first Pulitzer ever won by the L.A. Weekly, and the first one ever awarded for restaurant criticism.

The Wall Street Journal, whose editor, former L.A. Timesman Paul Steiger, is retiring this year, won two Pulitzers, the highest total of any for an American paper.

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