Wednesday, September 05, 2007

Most Important, Is Tribune Co. Investing Money?

I hear from friends that James O'Shea, the L.A. Times editor, is talking about making another move back to the good old days at the Times, by putting California news again on Page 3 of Part 1.

In a way, I'm pleased about this. During most of the years I was at the Times, it was best to work for the paper in Los Angeles, because there were three places where a good story you wrote could be showcased: Page 1 and Page 3 in the first section and Page 1 in the Metro section. When the editors cared enough about a big national or international story, they frequently sent Los Angeles-based reporters to do it, and this was good, because if they cared enough to spend the money, you felt you were going to get good space. But good space for national and international stories was only on Page 1.

Consistent with any such move as O'Shea is apparently talking about, would be the idea that most good California news would go on either Page 1 or Page 3 of the first section, most metro news on either Page 1 of the first section or in Metro (because it would probably be necessary to go back to calling it the Metro section).

As I say, I'm pleased, because it seems to mean that more of the bad ideas of John Carroll, Dean Baquet and Joe Hutchinson would be scrappped, as several have been already. All three of these would-be reformers, and sometimes bunglers, are gone anyway, Baquet regrettably so.

But I have one reservation about the latest contemplated move back to a more traditional paper, and that is the future of foreign and national coverage in the Times. Since the news hole has been reduced, it is quite conceivable that, if Page 3 were reserved again to California news, it would mean less foreign and national news, and fewer foreign and national bureaus. That would not be good for the Times, because so much of the appeal of the paper is the foreign and national bureaus.

I suppose, to be frank, I must admit that O'Shea and publisher David Hiller are "trying their damndest," as one former editor asserts, to bring the paper back from all the circulation and advertising declines by presenting it in the popular form it used to be.

But the fact is that the Times will not come back without some willingness at Tribune Co. headquarters to invest some money at the paper. And ultimately O'Shea and Hiller must be judged by their ability to obtain such investments.

What investments? Tribune Co. must sink money into a campaign to rebuild circulation back over the one million mark. Allowing it to slip below that marked acceptance in Chicago that the L.A Times was no longer going to be the great paper it once was.

And to rebuild circulation under the conditions of changing demographics in Southern California (a higher proportion of the public not reading and specaking English as their first language), is going to mean spreading statewide and perhaps building another national edition too.

This would cost money. And so would improvement of the Web site. Both Hiller and a reporter's committee have boosted such a project, but very little has yet been done. The Web site is paltry compared with some other newspapers, the New York Times and the Jerusalem Post among them.

It strikes me as very peculiar too that there is no advertising to speak of on the L.A. Times Web site. The New York Times is edging toward getting 10% of its revenue from its Web site, and it would appear the L.A. Times gets little or nothing. But if advertising is to be added to the L.A. Times Web site, there is going to have to be a specially-dedicated sales staff to do it. And that too would initially cost additional money.

It's my belief, as it was Carroll's and Baquet's, that if Tribune Co. would sink some money into the Times, as it might when Sam Zell comes aboard, that ultimately it would pay dividends in more revenue and a more successful paper.

Of late, all Tribune Co. and its newspapers have done is sink. It's time, every effort was made to reverse the slide, and that can best be done with investments.

It is certainly a good mark that young (I presume they're young, without having met them) reporters. like Tami Abdollah and Rong-Gong Lin, have been added to the Times staff. But the other investments are going to be necessary too.

--

Congratulations to the Lebanese government for crushing, at long last, the Fatah al-Islam terrorists near Tripoli, Lebanon, apparently killing their leader, Shaker al-Abssi, and rendering to Al Qaeda and its supporters a defeat in Lebanon. Fighting was the only thing that would suffice to do this job, just as fighting is the only way to destroy the malevolent al Qaeda and Taliban.

With aid from us, the French, the Saudis and the Gulf States, the regime of Fuad Siniora has been able, in this case, to accomplish a lot. As Winston Churchill once said, in reacting to American lend lease, "Give us the tools, and we shall do the job." Now that Fatah al-Islam is gone, perhaps better days are ahead for Lebanon, especially, if it can eventually get rid of Hezbollah as well.

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