Wednesday, November 14, 2007

Rutten, Lait, Goldberg, Artley Moves at L.A. Times

Now that Nick Goldberg, the Op Ed Page and Sunday Opinion editor at the L.A. Times, has made it to the Times masthead, it may be that, despite his and his wife Amy Wilentz's disdain for California, (as reflected in her recent book), they have decided to remain in the state. And that is all for the best, I'm sure, because California often wins immigrants, illegal or otherwise, over after awhile. They think they'd like to go back to where they came from, but when they are really up against it, they decide to stick with the Golden State. These initially reluctant converts often become some of our best citizens, and I think, as long as they are citizens, they should immediately be granted drivers licenses.

Goldberg has not only won a place on the masthead. He also has won Tim Rutten, beginning Jan. 1, as a twice-weekly Op Ed page columnist, and that ends the situation where every one of the Times' best columnists was somewhere else in the newspaper. Tim, who has been a media columnist in Calendar, now will write one column a week on local issues and one on cultural issues, even while continuing to write book reviews for Calendar. It's a large assignment, but one Tim might well be comfortable with. He has been a marvelous contributor to the newspaper in whatever assignment -- Opinion, Calendar, Metro and on and on.

But I wonder if, like the New York Times columnist, Frank Rich, Rutten will be given the space to write extra-long, especially when he requires it to write well. His columns in Calendar have been longer than those customarily on the Op Ed Page. Also, at any time, David Hiller may decide to put more ads on the Op Ed Page. such as from some of the nuts and fruits who mark Los Angeles life or from national outfits like American Airlines and Macy's which are mired in their own depressing performances. This could ominously balance off the quality Rutten will be bringing to the page.

I suppose that losing Ron Brownstein, the pedestrian political analyst, as a staff columnist (although his mediocre column continues to appear) may have opened the way to Rutten. If this is so, Brownstein, after all these years, has at last done a real service to the paper, and we owe him great thanks for leaving the staff. Regardless of that though, compliments must go to Goldberg and editorial pages editor Jim Newton for bringing Rutten on board. Actually, there have been other worthy articles on the Op Ed Page recently, in slowly increasing numbers.

Also winning a place on the Times masthead is the paper's Internet editor, Meredith Artley. That she too has been making improvements cannot be denied. The Web site is better designed, and it has become more comprehensive and timely.

But Artley has a long, long way to go. I notice that Editor and Publisher's list of the 30 most successful newspaper Web sites has the L.A. Times in fifth place, but not only way, way behind the front runners, but also in the sorry position of having its readers spend less time with the Web site, by far, than the other leaders.

Editor and Publisher says that the New York Times (no surprise) led in viewers for the month of October with 17.5 million. The average viewer spent 34.53 minutes with that Web site. Second is USA Today, 9.5 million in October, 16.3 minutes per viewer. Third is the Washington Post, 8.7 million viewers, 17.22 minutes each. Fourth is the Wall Street Journal, 5.9 million viewers, 14.19 minutes each, and then, fifth, is the L.A. Times, 5.5 million readers, a miserable 9.17 minutes each.

Artley, however, properly takes pride in the improvements she has already made, mentioning the redesigns, and speaking of plans to hire new people, such as videographers, database producers, interactive graphic producers, a mobile editor, a senior producer for real estate, and so forth. More power to her. She has an enthusiasm for the job that has sometimes been lacking in the past.

The new Wall Street Journal owner, Rupert Murdoch, has indicated the Wall Street Journal will follow others, and no longer charge viewers of its Web Site. When this move is made, the Journal may give the New York Times a run for the most Web site viewers. Regardless, all these Web sites are going to be selling more and more advertising, and not only to the losers like American Airlines and Macy's.

It will certainly take Artley more staff than the Tribune Co. has been willing to allocate to her up to now, to make the L.A. Times Web site competitive, and since the deal to sell the Tribune Co. to real estate magnate Sam Zell seems in further question this morning, with the FCC declining to go as far as the company wants to give it the right to own newspaper and TV outlets in the same market, the company seems destined to remain under the sway of inept CEO Dennis FitzSimons (Legree) for an indeterminately longer time. FitzSimons indicated in a statement yesterday he didn't know what was happening, which is not new.

Finally, but certainly not least in this porridge of big changes, is the announcement by the new Metro editor David Lauter that Matt Lait, the outstanding police correspondent, is becoming an editor on the city desk. Lait is more than well qualified for this position. The only question is whether he will miss his free life as a reporter. That can only be seen, but it again demonstrates one of Lauter's strengths: He may not be the best person at editing, but he is a good administrator. He's also been making other changes, new assignments, and most of them are good. Lauter may have a future at the newspaper.

But if he's going to have a new morning operation, a new early person in Megan Garvey, Lauter has to consider giving her more staff. It used to be a substantial number of Times reporters came to work at 7 a.m., affording the morning editor the ability to command a force capable of getting out there and covering the early news. In this new, lazier time, that staff has been cut, often leaving the poor morning editor scrounging around for personnel until reporters mosey in at 10 a.m.

Lauter also came to the Times from back East. He used to be the White House correspondent. I hope he has a California drivers license, and, since I believe he, like Goldberg, is a citizen, if he doesn't, the state should grant him one.

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