Tuesday, October 02, 2007

O'Shea Reforms At LAT: Will They Be Good Or Not?

The editor of the L.A. Times, James O'Shea, in a 1,200-word memo to the Times staff, has announced a campaign for shorter stories, putting all longer projects under Marc Duvoisin, introducing a Reader's Representive blog on the Web site, putting the Auto section under control of Business and the study of other changes, including possibly moving more local news to Section A. He says he is implementing, or studying, about two-thirds of 48 recommendations made by a staff "Reinvent" committee, and he adds he sees no reason not to go ahead before the prospective new Tribune Co. owner, Sam Zell, is fully aboard.

O'Shea also says in the memo, he intends to get to know the staff better and be more involved in the news room. This may mean fewer or shorter trips back to see his family in Chicago. O'Shea doesn't say, but he may, for all we know, be contemplating moving his family to Los Angeles,
which certainly would be a step toward greater involvement. Perhaps, he has already done so.

At about the same time as the O'Shea memo was issued, the L.A. Times circulation chief, Jack Klunder, publicly indicated his accord with Tribune policies to accept lower circulation at the Times, by withdrawing from some outlying areas and cutting promotion of the paper. Klunder was interviewed to this effect in the New York Times as part of a larger story on what newspapers around the country are doing in this regard. His remarks constitute a confirmation of certain statements made last week in his talk to the "Old Farts," the Times retired employees association, by publisher David Hiller.

I'm not in accord that Hiller and Klunder are following a wise policy. For all intents and purposes, it means Times daily circulation will never hit the million-mark again.

But more about this later. First, in response to the O'Shea-announced changes, my reaction is that none of them, per ce, is bad, and that, while I have a few reservations about them, in some cases I feel only that the editor is not going far enough. To take the primary announcements one by one:

1--O'Shea's plan for shorter stories is nothing new. As Kevin Roderick remarks in LA Observed, every editor in the history of the Times seems to have at least paid lip service to the idea. The Times has long had a reputation for running long stories, and there have been many criticisms of the paper on that score.

It should be added that shorter stories may mean more editing, to keep things concise, and O'Shea himself expresses a desire for more "discipline" among both writers and editors. The trouble with more editing, as it was introduced years ago by Noel Greenwood mainly, is that more editing may mean more nit-picking, and removal of provocative, none politically correct, parts of stories. This kind of editing has made the Times a duller paper. But keeping stories short, in terms of more pungent, would be a good thing. That is the challenge.

Also, it may be a good thing to give Duvoisin approval power over all the projects, which O'Shea
defines as anything that entails a full-page jump. My only reservation here is that on one recent occasion, I felt Duvoisin did not ask enough questions, or require that changes be made that would have made the story better and fairer. But that may have been an exception without general reference to Duvoisin's intelligence and competence.

2--In giving the Reader's Representative, Jamie Gold, more space and setting up a blog on the Web site, O'Shea may not be going far enough. The New York Times several years ago hired a prestigous outsider as its "Public Editor," each for limited periods, and that newspaper is now on its third such editor, Clark Hoyt. He writes in the print edition, in the NYT's Sunday Week in Review. These "public editors" have been strong commentators, and have been free, on numerous occasions, to question even decisions made by the NYT publisher, Arthur Sulzberger, Jr. and/or Executive Editor Bill Keller.

The question with the L.A. Times is not only why the new "Reader's Representative" page will be confined to the Web site, but whether the paper should not go outside on the New York Times model, to hire someone who can really command public confidence.

There also is a question whether the blog O'Shea envisions will be useful. One of the most inane features recently introduced at the Times is the blog on the 2008 political campaign authored by Don Frederick and Andrew Malcolm. The trouble is this duo has nothing interesting to say.

It is all to the good that the departing metro editor, Janet Clayton, will be taken on as a consultant for the effort O'Shea envisions to make the Times "more transparent." But it might be better for her to either write the blog herself, or find someone willing to be more provocative than Gold is likely to be. Non-provocative blogs are not very useful to anyone.

3--I see nothing wrong with moving the auto section under Business, as long as the Pulitzer Prize-winning auto columnist Dan Neil continues to be the main writer.

4--O'Shea also mentions improving the Monday newspaper. This is a challenge for any paper. As long ago as 1968, when I covered Eugene McCarthy's campaign for the Presidency, he used to routinely complain that the Monday New York Times, in order to pretend there had been news over the weekend, was too full of speculative articles, and some of the speculation was quite erroneous. But all best wishes to O'Shea on this project. It is easier said than done.

5--The implication of the O'Shea memo is that local or California news may be moved, in part, to Page 3, where state news was once before. This would undo another unwise John Carroll change, and is not bad in itself, as long as the news hole for foreign and national news is not reduced. With all this talk by both O'Shea and Hiller about a greater emphasis on local news, I think it esential for its future that the Times continue to be a great newspaper in coverage of Washington and the world as a whole, and that neither foreign nor national bureaus be reduced in size or number.

But keeping foreign and national news prominent, while improving local and state coverage, may be too much to expect if the Times continues to lose circulation, as it has dramatically under Tribune ownership, from near 1.2 million to the 800,000-range.

Klunder, quoted in Monday's New York Times article entitled, "Why Big Newspapers Applaud Some Declines in Circulation," implies he and other L.A. Times executives are more than ready to accept the notion that the LAT should withdraw from outlying areas to save on distribution costs and focus more on quality circulation that will attract advertisers in the Los Angeles metropolitan area.

He even remarks, "There is a school of thought these days that you stop actively selling altogether and let the readership seek its natural level. We're not at that point, but we're running far fewer promotions, accepting that some number of people are never going to buy the paper, long run, at full price."

It all reminds me of when I worked for Life magazine back in the 1960s. Its willingness to intentionally reduce its circulation marked the beginning of the end of that famous photo-journalistic product. Yet at that time, company managers swore they were doing the right thing.

The New York Times article, by Richard Perez-Pena, goes on to say, "Like many other papers, the (Los Angeles) Times has also cut back sharply on advertising itself. 'When the profitability stream of the paper is interrupted, you start to look at places to save on the expense side,' including advertising, Mr. Klunder said. 'You need to advertise in the long run, but we make a lot of short-term decisions in this business."

This is a polite way for Klunder to refer to the refusal of the inept Tribune Co. CEO, Dennis FitzSimons, to authorize more than a pittance for promoting the L.A. Times, which has been another major factor in its loss of circulation.

As I remarked in this blog last month, a major question at the Times is the willingness of the Tribune Co. to invest any money in building up the paper. The comments by Hiller and Klunder in the past week indicate that in the circulation area, the answer is no, despite the fact that L.A. Times circulation losses have been at a much greater percentage of the original total than most papers around the country.

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