As featured on p. 218 of "Bloggers on the Bus," under the name "a MyDD blogger."

Thursday, June 12, 2008

What Future For Journalism?

There was an extremely disturbing editorial in yesterday's Washington Post by Harold Meyerson, who used to be the executive editor of the LA Weekly, and thus understands the journalism scene here in Southern California. What is being done to the flagship newspaper, the LA Times, by real estate magnate Sam Zell, is nothing short of a dismantling of the biggest print outlet in the state and one of the biggest in the country. Zell was not the only owner willing to buy the Times last year; in fact, Eli Broad and Ron Burkle wanted to purchase it, spin it off from the Tribune Company, and return local ownership to the Southland. Instead, the Chicagoan Zell made the deal, and he's taking apart the newspaper bit by bit. It's a familiar story we've seen as the print journalism industry struggles through a disruptive time, and its top managers are responding in all the wrong ways.

During his first year in journalism, Zell has visited the city rooms and Washington bureaus of a number of Trib publications to deliver obscenity-laced warnings and threats to employees that whatever it was they were doing, it wasn't working. There was too much coverage of world and national affairs, he told Times writers and editors; readers don't want that stuff. Last week, the company decreed that its 12 papers would have to cut by 500 the number of pages they devoted every week to news, features and editorials, until the ratio of pages devoted to copy and pages devoted to advertising was a nice, even 1 to 1. At the Times, that would mean eliminating 82 pages a week.

As the company prepares to shed more reporters, it has measured writers' performances by the number of column inches of stories they ground out. It found, said one Zell executive, that the level of pages per reporter at one of Zell's smaller papers, the Hartford Courant (about 300), greatly exceeded that at the Times (about 50). As one of the handful of major national papers, however, the Times employs the kind of investigative and expert beat reporters not found at most smaller papers. I could name a number of Times writers who labored for months on stories that went on to win Pulitzers and other prizes, and whose column-inch production, accordingly, was relatively light. Doing so, I fear, would only put their necks on Zell's chopping block. So let me instead note that if The Post's Dana Priest and Anne Hull, who spent months uncovering the scandalous conditions at Walter Reed Army Medical Center, and whose reporting not only won a Pulitzer but caused a shake-up in the Army's treatment of wounded veterans, had been subjected to the Zellometer productivity index, they'd be prime candidates for termination.

Which is precisely, unfortunately, what's been happening at the Times. Voluntarily or not, large numbers of highly talented editors and reporters have left. The editorial staff is about two-thirds its size in the late 1990s, with further deep cuts in the offing. A paper that is both an axiom and an ornament of Los Angeles life, that helps set the political, business and artistic agenda for one of America's two great world metropolises, is being shrunk and, if Zell continues to get his way, dumbed down.

This is really hideous, and ultimately this will reduce even further the level of coverage on our state and its politics at this crucial juncture, in the midst of a housing crisis, a widening budget gap, and soaring energy prices. There are numerous problems here - bringing a businessman unused to the rigors of journalism in to run a newspaper, the effective elimination of the concept of the public interest, the commercialization of that which informs a citizenry, and all the rest. Conglomerates which control what news is disseminated and how it is presented not only interfere with the truth (really, read that Ruth Rosen article about her time on SF Chronicle editorial board in the run-up to war), but they have little ability to even manage the situation by their own narrow standards and turn a profit. Again and again we see major cuts to newsroom staffs, reductions in space for news, shrinking column inches, and the only result is that readers are turned off to the product and they drop their subscriptions.

We in the blogosphere slam the news media early and often, but we actually can't do what we do without them. And the electorate can't make the decisions in their political and personal lives that lead to progress when their sources of information are being chopped one column inch at a time. Sam Zell is a cancer on the body politic.

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