Wednesday, June 06, 2007

Don't Take Essential Things From Print Editions

One thing publisher David Hiller has done at the L.A. Times which struck me as a good thing was to roll back some of the more onerous features of the paper's new design -- especially the peculiar type faces on Page 1.

Having been a Times reader since I was six years old in 1944, I appreciate the way the paper looks, and still resent such design changes as making the Thursday Calendar a tabloid., which took place in the Shelby Coffey era. Later, virtually everything the Tribune-designated design director, Joe Hutchinson, did, annoyed me, and I was delighted to see him leave for other pastures.

All this by way of prefacing the observation that I shuddered the other day when Hiller remarked in a memo that he plans to change the paper "from scratch" as a means of reversing revenue and cash flow declines.

What I fear is that the changes could easily spin the paper into even worse disasters.

The Saturday Evening Post never recovered from one of its design changes and finally went out of business. Time magazine recently undertook a design change, which I think has been disastrous. Even its front index is a mess, with a reduced type size, and recent advertising losses there have meant that the magazine is pushing more and more of its content onto its Web pages, which I seldom read.

As a Time subscriber, I expect to actually read, with a print copy I'm holding in my hand, what Time has to say each week. And it's pretty much the same with the L.A. Times and the New York Times. I don't want to have to refer at every moment to the papers' Web pages to find essential things.

When I remarked on a recent blog that I still am bitterly resentful that the L.A. Times stopped publishing its TV guide, I heard from someone asking if I didn't understand the TV listings are all online and I can fashion a viewing of what I want to see any time for myself.

But I'm not very computer literate (1), and (2) the whole concept of going to the Web for something I used to be able to leaf through each morning in the TV guide I had saved for the week, simply does not appeal to me.

It is fortunate I've been able to get a cut rate for annual subscriptions to both Time magazine and the L.A. Times. The last few years, I've been able to subscribe to the L.A. Times for $104 for a whole year, or $2 a week, an excellent price, and, as a Time Warner stockholder, I was recently offered Time for $20 a year, a bargain. I extended that for three years and am now paid through 2011.

The New York Times is much more expensive. In order to get a copy delivered, it's about $650 a year. There's a way through some coupon cutting, or collecting restaurant vouchers, or something to reduce that amount, but I have little patience with such gimmicks.

The New York Times is a little like my children's' college educations at Yale and Berkeley. They were expensive, but I never begrudged the price, because I thought they were worthwhile, and I feel much the same about the New York Times. I've even routinely purchased my son a subscription when he's been living in places where that paper was delivered.,

I think that what Hiller must become aware of is that newspapers, like colleges, have longtime loyalists which make up the core of their readerships. Take away a lot of features, reduce the size of the Sports section, not covering the Australian Open or the French Open with Times correspondents, annoys me. Thank goodness, the foreign and national coverages still are good, but I wonder how long they will be, when I read about the paper's new celebrity orientation and see the advent of such worthless sections as Envelope, or the dumbing down of such sections as Travel.

More than revising the paper from scratch, as Hiller, and a dear friend of mine, recently suggested, I think the keys to preserving the Times in the years ahead are to advertise for circulation, expand the sales back across all of California and the West, and rely on a good advertising sales staff to capitalize on a stabilization or perhaps new growth of circulation to sell ads, while preserving the print edition as it's been.

I'm certainly aware that such papers as the San Francisco Chronicle and the Minneapolis Star-Tribune are cutting back their staffs and, presumably, their offerings, to the bone just to stay in business. But I think that for a paper with the reputation and history of the Times, and the opportunity of appealing statewide, it doesn't have to follow their operations into the toilet.


I see this morning where the Giuliani campaign has decided not to compete in an Iowa straw vote this summer, and there have recently been reports of discord in the Clinton campaign about whether to compete in the Iowa caucuses at all. Later in the day, Sen. John McCain also announced he would skip the Iowa straw poll.

For these front runners, it is perhaps understandable that they want to rely on name recognition in the big primary states, and they distrust the idiosyncrasies of the Iowa electorate. Still, decisions to avoid the earliest primaries or straw polls, no matter where they are, have to be viewed as risky.

What Giuliani and Clinton have to worry about is avoiding a situation where someone emerges as a power in the earliest contests and therefore has momentum coming into the crowded later calendar of primaries. In recent years, some candidates have lost in Iowa and/or New Hampshire and have yet managed to make comebacks. But it is risky.

In the televised debates thus far, both Giuliani and Clinton have been coming across strongly, and both maintain solid leads in the polls. Still, there are other attractive candidates, such as Obama, Thompson and Romney, and it's much too early to count them out.



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