Thursday, September 27, 2007

Disquieting Comments By Hiller To "Old Farts"

I should say at the outset that David Hiller, the publisher of the L.A. Times, made a mostly sincere and informative presentation yesterday to the Old Farts, the L.A. Times retired employees association, took many questions and was kind enough to invite everybody to the Times for one of the future meetings of the group. The luncheon was at the Sportsmen's Lodge in Studio City.

But nonetheless I found Hiller's presentation disquieting for several reasons.

Most important of these were that (1) he seems to accept a smaller Los Angeles Times, confined in circulation largely to the Greater Los Angeles Metropolitan area, and (2) he stops short of committing the owners, the Tribune Co., to making some needed investments, such as a restoration of TV Guide, although he freely concedes there has been quite an adverse reaction of readers to the termination of the weekly guide.

Hiller does apparently recognize the importance of what he calls "the demographics" of the Los Angeles area. These population shifts are cutting into the Times' circulation base, since the Anglo proportion of the population, especially in Los Angeles County, is decreasing, and, according to Hiller's admission, the Times has not been faring well with Latino readers.

Hiller said that the fall in Times circulation (he said 250,000, but it has actually been closer to 350,000) in recent years since the Tribune Co. bought the newspaper is, most importantly, among younger readers, in the 18 to 34-year-old age group, and among Latinos.

His main specific prescriptions for recovering the younger readers were giving readers more celebrity news, and, vaguely, more local news, although he added that recently bringing back Sandy Banks as a columnist brought someone who writes things that are appealing to the young readers.

(In a lapse of sincerity, Hiller did not mention an idea he floated at Town Hall this week -- that he would seek younger readers by launching a free tabloid similar to the "Redeye" the Tribune Co. distributes in Chicago. I suspect the reason he did not broach this at the "Old Farts" was that he knew it would not be popular with anyone dedicated, as the retired employees are, to continued quality at the L.A. Times. A free tabloid could only prove another blow to paid circulation of the print edition of the Times. This omission demonstrates another quality evident in Hiller -- his periodic duplicity).

As for the Latinos, he talked about increasing the number of Latino editorial personnel. But he ignored the loss of such Latino columnists as Frank Del Olmo and George Ramos, who, for the most part have not been replaced. Yes, Gregory Rodriguez is writing quite a bit for the editorial pages, but he does not have the appeal that Del Olmo did. Del Olmo, who died of a tragic heart attack, was the Latino face of the L.A. Times, he was on the masthead, and as such was a celebrity in the Latino community. Despite any future intentions Hiller has in this regard, the paper seems to be making less effort to win Latino readers than it did in the era of CEO Mark Willes. Hiller also mentioned adding Armenian writers to the newsroom, which is pertinent after the unfortunate loss of the talented Mark Arax.

When the retired medical writer Harry Nelson asked about whether home delivery of the paper might be restored in Kern County, where he lives, Hiller responded that it had been necessary to pull back from some outlying areas for cost reasons. But Nelson observed that many days, not only is he unable to get home delivery, as he did until two years ago, but he can't even find the Times on the newsstands, so few are brought into his county.

Hiller did observe that the New York Times has responded to demographic changes in the New York metropolitan area by greatly expanding its national edition and thereby offsetting circulation losses in the city. He said the New York Times is no longer trying to dominate the readership of newspapers in New York, and observed it seems as interested these days in selling on the West Side of Los Angeles.

But Hiller did not seem terribly receptive to the notion that in order to compensate for demographic changes in Los Angeles, the Los Angeles Times should make a renewed effort to circulate the newspaper, if not nationally, at least throughout the state of California. He acknowledged the paper has terminated its San Diego edition and is no longer shipping as many papers as it once did to the San Francisco Bay Area and Sacramento. (He did not mention Orange County or the San Fernando Valley, both of them areas where the Times has cut way back in staffing and coverage, and dropped substantially in circulation).

Hiller devoted quite a bit of his talk to the Times Web site. He said about 100 personnel will be added to the Web site, and he projected that advertising revenues from the Web site would grow from the current $70 million a year (most importantly in classified listings) to $200 million in future years.

But he did not indicate any plan to divert revenue increases at the Web site into enhancing other parts of the paper, specifically in the print edition.

If Web site revenues are really projected to increase by $130 million, it is hard to see why $5 million of that could not be allocated to restoring TV Guide, for example. (Hiller did not mention the amalgamation of the paper's Opinion section with the Book Review, giving readers less than they had before of both, but, when someone in the audience brought up TV Guide, he remarked that this comes up where ever he goes. He said that adding a weekly grid for TV programs, possibly in Thursday's paper, is being considered, but it still would have few listings before 7 p.m. for each day).

Also, in discussing the circulation losses, Hiller never mentioned that for a period of several years, the Tribune Co. did not budget any substantial sum to promoting circulation. A study by Leo Wolinsky on declining Times circulation attributed the lack of a budget to promote sales as a large part of the reason, and even in the Willes era I can recall Willes saying that it had come as a rude surprise to him how much effort newspapers had to devote just to keeping circulation steady. Willes came in saying he had a goal of increasing daily Times circulation to two million, but had to struggle to raise it by 100,000. The Tribune ceased that struggling.

I further found it somewhat discouraging that Hiller seemed preoccupied with the notion that people who are more and more reading news on the Internet, are less interested in getting it 24 hours later in the newspaper.

This ignores the fact that articles in specific newspapers are more detailed than many Internet accounts, unless one looks deeply into Internet references to specific papers and magazines.

Hiller's observation that one way of getting around the Internet problem would be to focus more on the local news stories than the Internet does not usually give in much depth, implies he may cut back on the presentation of international and national news, which now is one of the great strengths of the Times. He did not exactly say this would be done, but he did say the presentation of foreign news was something he was mulling over.

The publisher also acknowledged he had been getting some e-mails from readers who do not like the wrap-around advertising which has necessitated getting rid of these ads before you can read the paper. But he said he had gotten zero adverse reader reaction to the advent of Page 1 advertising at the bottom of the page. There was quite a bit of sour reaction to this but only in the newsroom, he commented, and it brings in $40,000 a pop. He did not say how much of this goes toward the bonuses of the inept Tribune CEO, Dennis FitzSimons, but he did say the annual profit margins of the Times have slipped from the mid-20% range to the mid-teens.

I did agree with Hiller most when the subject of columnists in the newspaper came up. Someone at the lunch mentioned that he had enjoyed Steve Lopez's column of the day about soaring costs of the new Los Angeles police headquarters now being built across the street from the Times, but that he would rather see this in a regular news story rather than by a columnist.

Hiller did not agree with the criticism, and neither do I. I think one of the most entertaining and informative parts of the Times these days are the columnists -- particularly the ones off the editorial pages in regular sections, such as Lopez, George Skelton, Tim Rutten, David Lazarus, Al Martinez, Bill Dwyre and Bill Plaschke. (Let's leave T.J. Simers to the side). The columnists are certainly freer to express themselves than the regular reporters, who suffer from editing that is often too restrictive, not to say stodgy.

Hiller, to sum it up, came across as a man who is engaged, is trying hard, but does not really have the ambitions for the L.A. Times that Otis Chandler and Tom Johnson had when they were publishers. However, he has grown some in the job, and maybe there's hope he will either change his mind about some of these things or be permitted by his Chicago overseer, FitzSimons (Legree) to do so.


The crackdown in Burma by the military junta goes on, with the murder of demonstrators, the beating and arrest of many monks and the reported imprisonment of the heroic Nobel laureate and elected leader of the country, Daw Aung San Suu Kyi. A Japanese photographer was among the dead today. The regime has shut down Internet cafes and is otherwise trying to block the sending of accounts of what is happening abroad, along with revealing pictures.

However, some foreign papers have now gotten correspondents into Burma, and the British paper, the Guardian, reported today there are the first signs of mutiny in the Burmese army, with one report that the colonel in command of the junta's forces in Rangoon has sided with the demonstrators. The L.A. Times at long last has one of its foreign correspondents, Henry Chu in New Delhi, reporting on the dramatic events.

China issued a statement of concern and plea for restraint today, and the U.S. increased its sanctions. However, the crisis cannot be resolved at this point without the ouster of the junta and the coming to power of San Suu Kyi.



Anonymous Anonymous said...

"the Times has not been faring well with Latino readers."

Why? To be blunt, the L.A. Latino market is not highly literate. No literacy = no newspaper readers = no newspaper circulation. Not in English or Spanish.

Go to Koreatown. There are korean language bookstores selling books, magazines, and newspapers in Korean and English.

Go to Little Tokyo. There are japanese language bookstores selling books, magazines and newspapers in Japanese and English.

I don't have to talk about English language bookstores in "white" areas.

Many Spanish language UHF TV stations and Spanish language radio stations. Only a matter of time before there is a Spanish language VHF TV station.

Bookstores catering to the latino market? Show me where they are.

Maybe I catch h**l, but so what.

9/29/2007 11:15 PM  

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