Monday, November 19, 2007

Is The Sunday LAT Moving Toward The Future?

Reading the Sunday newspapers, the L.A. Times and the New York Times, yesterday, it seemed very clear that the most interesting articles were often in the NYT's Week in Review section, the L.A. Times Opinion section, and the two papers' book reviews.

These articles were all columns, interpretive articles, and the reviews. The only real exceptions to the most interesting articles being in those sections were the column by David Lazarus in the L.A. Times Business section on fraudulent offers in the sub-prime lending crisis, and the NYT's headline report, after a Bush Administration-requested delay of three years, that the U.S. has spent $100 million on a highly classified effort to safeguard Pakistan's nuclear weapons from terrorist control. (The New York Times also had a Week in Review commentary by Frederick W. Kagan and Michael O'Hanlon pointing out what should be obvious: The Pakistani crisis could develop in such a way that we would be forced to send military forces into Pakistan to protect the nuclear weapons).

I would also be remiss, if I did not acknowledge that the news section political blog by Don Frederick and Andrew Malcolm was more interesting Sunday than it has been in the past, especially the lead item about the Democratic candidates in the Las Vegas debate.

What I think readers care about most, beyond the occasional sensational news such as the recent California wildfires, or the latest sports scores, are the analytical pieces, including the columns. They want opinion. They consider it more compelling that the usually bland, straight news.

If this is true, we can begin to understand why the L.A. Times is having trouble with its Sunday circulation. While daily circulation has stabilized at about 780,000, the Sunday circulation has dipped by about 5%, in the last six months, toward 1.1 million.

Why is Sunday slipping? I think we have to point to the unfortunate decision to fold the L.A. Times Opinion section and Book Review into one tabloid-like section, shortening both, and then sticking those sections in such obscure places in the Sunday newspaper that they are hard to find. (The New York Times Week in Review is prominently located among the first few sections in the paper available for notice).

What was in both the LAT's Opinion and the Book Review, insofar as it went, was fine. Two serious commentaries on Darfur and the Middle East. A lead on the LAPD and Skid Row. A lead review of Bill Boyarsky's new book on the career of Jesse Unruh.

But we could have had more. The L.A. Times should spend a little of its profits on reviving separate Opinion and Book Review sections, so it can have more editorials, letters, commentaries and reviews. Again, as I say, this is what the public wants and has a right to expect. Californians would rather have a complete Sunday newspaper than continued fat bonuses for Tribune Co. executives back in Chicago.

Also, of course, it would be a good idea to revive the weekly TV Guide. While the publisher, David Hiller, has promised repeatedly in recent months to at least run more TV listings, not only has he failed to do so, but my impression Sunday was that, with an ad running across the bottom of the TV listings, there seemed to be even fewer than in recent weeks.

Quite a few Sunday sections, meanwhile, have been dumbed down. This is apparent in Travel, where there are all sorts of photographs and boxy shorts, and less editorial content than used to run. Business, also, seems to have been cut back.

None of the L.A. Times sections discussed here can compare with those in the Sunday New York Times. That paper's superiority on Sunday has only increased, although, it is true, the New York Times is also struggling to hold Sunday circulation numbers. Still, its Sunday edition is a monumental product.

Moves are being made at the L.A. Times, meanwhile, to put new, young people in more key editorial positions. David Lauter, the new Metro editor, announced a number of new assignments late last week. There are new statewide political writers (although keeping Phil Willon in Riverside probably has more to do with housing prices in L.A. than for any sound editorial reason). Rick Paddock will be assigned to politics next year, and the veteran Cathy Decker will resume some writing. It is all just in time, too, because Times political coverage has been bland in comparison with the other big newspapers, the New York Times and Washington Post. Hopefully, Willon, Paddock and Decker can supplement some national coverage too. Fresh writing is needed there too.

A friend once told me that being a successful newspaper reporter was such a young person's game that unless you had made it by the time you were 30, you could forget it. By this standard, I barely missed it, because it was not until five days after my 30th birthday that I got my first major assignment at the newspaper, to cover Eugene McCarthy's 1968 presidential campaign.
But, of course, that age line for success is not always true. Staff members of the Times like columnists Steve Lopez, Tim Rutten and Al Martinez are well up in years.

Still, the young people have to be pushed along, and two of the most promising at the Times, Rong-Gong Lin and Tami Abdollah, were not the subject of announced promotions last week. Their time will undoubtedly come.

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