Can L.A. Times Survive Zell, Michaels, Hiller?
It is not too surprising that a determination to resist the deterioration of the Los Angeles Times that has grown quickly out of the wrongheaded decisions and plans of Sam Zell and his colleagues should surface most clearly, for the moment, among anonymous bloggers. The bloggers are perhaps voices out of the news room who realize all too clearly what is happening, and are daring to try to stop it.
A blog known as "Save Our Trade" (www.saveourtrade.blogspot.com) is floating a survey due July 15 asking a number of devastating questions about Tribune management, such as, what do the constant layoffs and other anti-employee actions have to do with the concept under which Zell used employee stock to take over control of the company, telling the hapless employees about to be terminated that they "owned" the paper?
Meanwhile, the TellZell blog (www.tellzell.com) is passing along a suggestion from someone at the Tribune-owned Orlando Sentinel that Times and other Tribune employees either call in sick on July 9, or conduct a byline-masthead strike for the editions of July 10. Tellzell has its own survey trying to determine whether employees think this is a good idea.
Of course, I certainly associate myself with these stirrings of action.
But the greater question at this point is, I believe: Can the Zell-Michaels plan for a "redesign" of the L.A. Times be stopped in its tracks?
We've already seen, at the Orlando paper, the dumbing down and tabloid aspects of the redesign of that paper. And although Tribune is saying there won't be a template on these redesigns for all Tribune papers, we cannot be at all sanguine about what redesign of the Times, and the promised drastic reduction in the number of its news pages, will mean.
I think there is every reason to fear that it would be a point of no return -- that no matter who came to own the paper in the future, it would be too late after the redesign, and too costly, to restore the paper to essentially what it has been since Otis Chandler became publisher in 1961.
Certainly our cherished national and foreign bureaus which have served the paper and its readers so faithfully, will, to a very great extent, fall by the wayside in a redesign. After all, didn't Zell rudely tell the Washington bureau months ago that he saw no reason it should have as many reporters as the Orange County suburban office?
And I was informed by a retired foreign editor just last week that he had been asked by Russ Stanton, the David Hiller-appointed editor of the Times, whether he felt it would be a good idea to abandon the Baghdad bureau of the Times and cover the Iraq war from afar. (Speaking of journalists serving the public interest, it takes a Russ Stanton to come up with an idea like that!)
Marjorie Miller (not my source) decided to step down as foreign editor shortly after that question was asked. She became only the latest in a long, depressing series of top-ranking personnel to leave their positions under the evil Tribune reign.
Would a redesign actually enhance local coverage and the Web site? I don't think so. Every time, a new step has been taken in the recent years of Tribune ownership, we have been assured that Metro (the California section) would have more more pages, or that the Web site would grow in offerings, timeliness and sophistication. Yet, none of these promises have been kept.
No, I think it is certain that a redesign would be absolutely devastating to the paper.
So, what can be done?
Every argument must now be made to Zell and the board of directors in Chicago that they should put such a radical retooling of the Tribune papers, and especially Times operations into abeyance until they have had a chance to consult with journalistic experts around the country to see how they think it would be received. (Virtually no one who has commented from outside thinks that Zell, Michaels and company know anything about the newspaper business).
Beyond that, the civic group of luminaries here in Los Angeles who first wrote then-Tribune CEO Dennis FitzSimons last year suggesting that, if Tribune wasn't willing to expend resources in Los Angeles, it sell the paper to someone who would, should become active again to push the demand that the paper be sold to local interests. This group represents the elite of the community. It is high time they show a little backbone.
It may well be that Zell is breaking the law, in some way, abandoning his fiduciary duty to the employee stockholders, by such a radical policy of changing his papers, which are already falling drastically in both circulation and ad revenue. A skilled lawyer might have to be retained to advise the employees whether it is possible to go to court to defend their interests.
Certainly, this is not the time to lose heart.
Now is the time to search for any means that will get the Times out from under the awful Tribune yoke, and bring to a halt the malevolent influence of Zell, Michaels, Hiller and other Tribune executives. Or at least delay them in their actions, until new rays of light begin to show themselves.
This is a bad time in the newspaper business, as it is, economically for the country in so many ways. But, I fully believe, brighter days will come, and we must do what we can to insure that they do.
Labels: Tribune failures