Tuesday, April 29, 2008

Tale Of Two Newspapers: WSJ and L.A. Times

Written from Mombasa, Kenya--

I'm beginning to think more of Rupert Murdoch. He invests in his newspapers. He builds them up, rather than tears them down. The proof this week is two fold: First, there's the report that the Wall Street Journal, which Murdoch recently purchased, is one of the few American newspapers actually up in daily circulation over the last six months -- to 2,069,000, a gain of 0.4%. Second is the news that the Journal is adding four pages a day of international news.

The Journal, under Murdoch, is giving the readers more, and may be winning the competitive fight with the New York Times, which is down 3.9% in circulation to 1,077,000.

Now contrast the Journal with the Los Angeles Times. LAT circulation losses are consistent. Its situation is worsening, as the evil Tribune Co., the owners and their appointees cut the paper further and further back, losing the most able reporters and editors. They give the readers less all the time, so naturally they attract fewer readers. Circulation is down almost 40% since Tribune bought the paper in 2000. The latest figures show, it has sunk to 773,000 daily and 1,101,000 Sundays.

Why is this? Beyond the inroads of the Internet, which has hurt many newspapers, another answer is that the Times is afflicted with a company that refuses to invest in the paper, or to adequately promote circulation. It has fired or forced out three talented editors and ousted two publishers. Succeeding to these positions has been the most inept publisher in the history of the paper -- David Hiller -- so accurately described by a former editor as "a pain in the ass."

Hiller, who writes many worthless memos, each one further depressing staff morale, fired two editors, the distinguished Dean Baquet, and James O'Shea, for resisting cutbacks, and has now appointed one, Russ Stanton, who is totally unsuitable. Stanton too likes to write memos, and each one is dumber than the one before. He is a lackey to Hiller, nothing more and nothing less.

Together, this squalid duet, Hiller and Stanton, are as destructive of the newspaper as the Rev. Jeremiah Wright is to the Obama presidential campaign. Every time any of these characters open their mouth, it is bad news for everything they profess to believe in.

The Wall Street Journal is heading up, up, up. The L.A. Times is heading down, down, down, and that will not change until an able, imaginative new owner comes board, such as David Geffen.

Another way to look at it is personnel. Lee Hotz and Stephanie Simon moved from the L.A. Times to the Wall Street Journal. Just with those two, we can see what's wrong in Los Angeles. And that does not even get into the scores of talented people laid off or forced into buyouts.

--

It is sad news indeed that the great retired L.A. Times writer, Chuck Hillinger, is critically ill with cancer. Hillinger, an indefatigible world traveler, brought the newspaper some of its finest feature stories for many years. A world class personality, his curiousity was unbounded. His contributions to the great newspaper the late Otis Chandler built cannot be overstated. All best wishes to him and to his family. Time passes, and we are losing or threatened with the loss of paper's elite. How sad!

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At a luxury hotel five miles north of Mombasa yesterday, I saw a contingent of United States Marines. I was told they are committed to the fight against Islamic terrorists in Somalia, several hundred miles up the coast. I did not see them, but I've been told U.S. Marines are also in the Seychelles islands, where we stopped on the African cruise before coming to Kenya.

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