February 1, 2007
The Times, it is a-changin’
Suppose for example, your synagogue is hosting a discussion on mixed marriage, and you think it should be covered or even just publicized with a small notice.
You phone the paper or send in a press release, but it never makes it through the layers of editors and gatekeepers. Or, suppose you are mad at a Times editorial. You write a letter to the editor, and your letter is either savagely edited or not published at all.
Times are changing, and the Times, with circulation and advertising dropping, can no longer afford to be so high and mighty. At long last, the paper is going to juice up its Web site, and community input like your synagogue discussion meeting and your opinions and activities may be a big part of it.
The paper's Web site, latimes.com, has been around since 1996. I used to do Internet chats on latimes.com during the O.J. Simpson trial, trading opinions with O.J. junkies who amazed me with their knowledge of every detail. But after a promising start, the Times neglected the Web site.
As a task force of Times editors and reporters said in a report run last week on the Web site, www.mediabistro.com/fishbowlLA, "To put it bluntly: As a news organization, we are not Web-savvy. If anything, we are Web-stupid."
From reading the report, talking to Times people and following what's happening at more successful newspaper Web sites, I gather that the new Times Web site will have a heavy dose of what the business calls "local local."
This means the Times Web site will provide a crime log for your neighborhood, home sales prices, stories on community events and progress reports on projects such as road widening and commuter bus and rail lines.
If the Times can figure out the software, anyone can be a correspondent and file reports with photographs and videos on the Web site. And if you are angry, your letter to the editor won't disappear into the dark void of Timesland. You can have an Internet dialogue with the person who wrote the story. And if you are really mad, you can rant away on a blog.
"A recurring theme of Web innovation is to connect with readers, and connect readers with one another, in ways unachievable in print," the Times editors and reporters said in their report.
Publishers and editors of smaller daily newspapers and community newspapers, such as The Jewish Journal, have known this forever.
The Los Angeles area is so big, sprawling, diverse, with so many unconnected parts, that the Times has always found it difficult to get its arms around the place. When I was a columnist and then city editor, I looked for themes that I thought might interest a broad variety of readers -- schools, the beach, traffic, air pollution, crime, heartwarming stories of kids who made it against all odds.
But I knew from my travels through L.A. that we missed much of what was happening. Protests, neighborhood movements, church, synagogue and mosque news, art exhibits and many other happenings had a hard time making it into the paper.
And these were the events and organizations that made up the fabric of L.A. This is where The Journal and other community papers step in, but that's not enough. What's needed is the reach of the Times.
One of the great clichés of journalism is that newspapers exist to comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable. As is the case with all clichés, there is some truth in it. But it also reflects a certain self-righteous pomposity endemic to the trade of journalism, as if we know best.
Who gives journalists the power to decide who is comfortable? And what's wrong with being comfortable? If I am comfortable, why should some reporter afflict me?
What newspapers must think about is giving voice to the voiceless.
When I was a columnist, I discovered many, many good people and fine organizations that were unknown outside their block or neighborhood.
If one caught my eye, I would write about the person or the group -- unless something better came along. That's how it is in traditional daily journalism.
The Web changes that. It empowers people, gives them a voice. I've found that out on the city Ethics Commission. When I couldn't get the press or anyone else in City Hall to pay attention to me, I started blogging on the L.A. Observed Web site. This gives me a voice. I don't need the traditional press or, as it is called in the blogging world, the MSM (mainstream media).
I hope the Times follows through on improving its Web site. I had lunch with the Times' new editor, Jim O'Shea, and he's got some good ideas. I hope he sticks around long enough to put them to use.
Until leaving the Los Angeles Times in 2001, Bill Boyarsky worked as a political correspondent, a Metro columnist for nine years and as city editor for three years. You can reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.