July 30, 2008
Sell it, Sam
Then they sloughed off hundreds of journalists, and I said nothing. Then they fired another 150 writers and editors, took away the Book Review section, gutted the Opinion section and, come on, isn't it time we all said enough!
The evisceration of The Los Angeles Times is a crime against our city. There is no great city without a great daily newspaper, and what is happening at The Times affects far more than the paper's dwindling number of readers. It hurts every resident, every property owner, every voter.
A newspaper that does its job well allows citizens to make informed choices. It knits together diverse communities. It sets a common agenda for conflicting interests. It holds powerful people and institutions accountable and exposes what is dangerous, ludicrous or just plain inefficient in our midst. It doesn't matter whether the journalistic enterprise does this via paper or computer or a thousand shofars on a thousand hills -- what matters most is that its owners care deeply about their city.
In a superb New Yorker profile last November, journalist Connie Bruck examined Sam Zell's motives in taking over The Tribune Company, the Times' parent company. They are purely financial.
Bruck pressed Zell -- amazing guy, son of Holocaust survivors, proud Jew, etc. etc., -- on why buying a newspaper attracted him.
"The way I look at transactions, and the way I look at risk," Zell told Bruck, "I have no room for sentiment."
What's wrong with Zell's energetic outlook is that great sentiment drives great newspapers— sentiment for the mission of journalism and for the city in which it's practiced.
The owners of The New York Times and The Washington Post -- the nation's two greatest papers -- realized long ago that newspapers are a different kind of business. They are deeply anti-intuitive. Sometimes you do things on the editorial side -- pay a lot for a great reporter to investigate your biggest advertiser, for example -- that would seem to hurt the business side. But in the end such journalism strengthens your bond with readers, which in turn creates more eyeballs for advertisers. A great newspaper's primary, almost sacrosanct, audience is not its high-paying advertisers, but its relatively low-paying readers. Media companies that get that, succeed.
"Good journalism is expensive," former Times City Editor Bill Boyarsky (a current Jewish Journal columnist) told an audience of young professionals at an American Jewish Committee forum on the media earlier this month. "Someone has to pay for it. Blogging just doesn't cut it."
Greater analysts than I have picked apart the financial folly behind Zell's purchase (see Marty Kaplan's column in these pages two weeks ago). And greater journalists than I have pointed out that not all the people running and working at The Times are exempt from guilt for the paper's obvious decline in quality.
Driving to a meeting on July 15, I got caught up in an inexplicable, pre-rush hour traffic snarl. Police had set up a perimeter around several blocks near Olympic and Crenshaw boulevards. Cops with guns drawn controlled the sidewalks; helicopters swooped in overhead. It looked like a scene from "Generation Kill." Life and traffic in the heart of America's second largest city had come to a standstill. Not to be old-fashioned, but a few questions immediately popped into my head: Who? What? When? Why? How?
In the following morning's edition of The Times, I found my answer -- in some police-blotter milquetoast on the inside of the B section: A Latino youth had been shot near Olympic and Plymouth boulevards in Mid-City at about 2:30 p.m. That was about all.
Three days later, The Times ran a slightly longer piece when police arrested the shooter. But let it go, right? As the Letters to the Editor of The Journal make clear, none of us is above errors and oversights. Everyone's an editor.
Yet, still, it was easy to imagine how The New York Times and Daily News might have covered three-dozen cop cars and the hunt for a murder suspect on, say, 56th and Broadway on a Tuesday afternoon. By the next day you'd know what the suspect's wailing aunt looked like, which commander led the charge, which pol grandstanded in front of the TV cameras, how much of the victim's blood splattered onto what kind of lawn.
That's how The Los Angeles Times should be -- should have been -- covering the city. And ask Rupert Murdoch and the Sulzbergers -- there's money to be made doing it that way.
For The Times to flourish, the life force of every man, woman and owner of that institution has to be the City of Los Angeles, who we are and how we live and work and die here. If Zell really wanted to make his paper a success, he needed to do only one thing -- give every reporter a laptop, kick them out of the Times Mirror building and lock the doors. Have them learn the neighborhoods, report from the streets, tell me great stories and tell me why they matter.
For many years, many Los Angeles Jews have excoriated The Times for what they felt was its biased coverage of Israel. At the height of the Second Intifada, some of these diehards even launched a boycott of The Times, canceling their subscriptions.
The main reason I opposed such a boycott is that I live in Venice, not Hebron. I want to know what Councilman Bill Rosendahl is doing to declog Lincoln Boulevard, what those gunshots I heard the other night in front of Venice High were and what columnists like Patrick Goldstein and Steve Lopez have to say about my world. As much as I love Israel, these things affect me and my family, here and now.
I didn't believe then that we could do without a flourishing city newspaper, and -- despite the best efforts of Sam Zell to convince me otherwise -- I don't believe it now.
I'm hoping there's a Web-based or nonprofit-based solution to Los Angeles' Great Journalism Void. Or perhaps there exists an elusive civic-minded savior who will swoop down and save The Times -- someone with Clark Kent's reporting skills and Bruce Wayne's deep pockets.
But it needn't take a Superhero to save The Times -- just someone rich who cares.