Tag Archives: Los Angeles Times

Aaron Kushner is shutting down the LA Register

CA_LAR

Click on image for larger view.

In April, when Orange County Register publisher Aaron Kushner launched the Los Angeles Register, the bloom was already off the rose. (Here’s what I wrote in June.) So it’s not really a surprise that Kushner is shutting down the misbegotten daily. Andrew Khouri of the Los Angeles Times has the details.

And here’s the inevitable quote from Kushner and his business partner Eric Spitz about all those darn naysayers:

Pundits and local competitors who have closely followed our entry into Los Angeles will be quick to criticize our decision to launch a new newspaper and they will say that we failed. We believe, the true definition of failure is not taking bold steps toward growth.

Image via the Newseum’s Today’s Front Pages.

Can Aaron Kushner go the distance?

Aaron Kushner speaking in April 2013 at California State University, Fullerton.

Aaron Kushner speaking in April 2013 at California State University, Fullerton.

This commentary was published earlier at The Huffington Post.

Has Orange County Register owner Aaron Kushner run into nothing more than a bit of turbulence from which he can recover? Or do the layoffs he announced last week show that his plan to resuscitate the newspaper business by hiring more journalists and doubling down on print is fundamentally flawed?

I hope it’s the former — not just because I’d like to see him prove everybody wrong (including me) about the future of news, but because I’m planning to include him in a book about a new breed of media moguls who are using their personal wealth and smarts to innovate their way toward a brighter future. (News of the layoffs was broken by Gustavo Arellano of OC Weekly, which has taken a jaundiced view of Kushner’s ownership.)

Trouble is, there have been hints previously that Kushner, 40, lacked the sheer financial firepower of Boston Globe owner John Henry or Washington Post owner Jeff Bezos. I’ll get to that in a moment. But first, a little background on what’s unfolding in Southern California.

Kushner, who bought the Register in 2012 for $50 million, was the most celebrated new newspaper owner in the country before he was eclipsed in August of last year by Bezos and Henry. “Can Aaron Kushner save the Orange County Register — and the newspaper industry?” asked the Columbia Journalism Review last May. As CJR’s Ryan Chittum explained it, Kushner’s vision was based on:

  • Lavish attention to the print product, including more pages and an upgrade in the quality of paper.
  • A move away from free or even reduced-price content online, with Internet users paying exactly the same fees as print subscribers.
  • An increase in the size of the newsroom staff, as he added 140 journalists to the 180 who were there when he bought the paper.

Nor was Kushner content with pumping up the Orange County Register. Last August he started a new daily, the Long Beach Register. He bought The Press-Enterprise of Riverside. And in his most audacious move yet, he announced plans to start a Los Angeles Register to compete with the Los Angeles Times, once among the best newspapers in the country and still formidable. (LA is also home to a second paper, the Los Angeles Daily News.)

Then, last week, came a significant setback. Not everyone agrees on the figures, but Ken Bensinger of the LA Times reported that Kushner laid off about 35 people at the Orange County Register and 39 at The Press-Enterprise. Register editor Ken Brusic and other top editors left. Rob Curley, who had overseen digital initiatives at papers at the Washington Post and the Las Vegas Sun, was promoted to the top position.

“We are evaluating our cost structure for the next leg of our journey in terms of covering Orange County and LA County,” Kushner told New York Times media columnist David Carr, who noted that Kushner plans to plunge ahead with his idea for a Los Angeles paper without adding any staff. Carr wrote:

By amortizing the costs of all the journalists he hired over a bigger market, he can achieve savings in terms of production while adding marginal readers and advertising.

He clearly sees himself as a smart entrepreneur making bold bets. I see a man on a wire, with millions of dollars and hundreds of jobs at stake.

As for past hints that Kushner may not be well-heeled enough to play the long game, you may recall that, several years ago, he tried to buy The Boston Globe. (The Globe’s then-owner, the New York Times Co., apparently showed no interest, and Kushner later struck out on a bid to purchase Maine’s Portland Press Herald.)

Before Kushner gave up on his Globe dream, though, Katherine Ozment wrote an in-depth profile of him for Boston magazine. Among other things, Ozment attempted to show precisely how Kushner had made a fortune in the greeting-card business, his major claim to fame up to that time. What she found was a haze of acquisitions, layoffs and charges (which Kushner denied) that he was late in paying artists, sales reps and the like.

Eventually Kushner left his company after some sort of falling-out with the investors, though he told Ozment he remained part of ownership. “I had a vision for the business, and they had a very different vision, and they controlled the working capital, so we decided to move on,” he said.

Despite that possible warning sign, it has to be noted that the Orange County Register remains a much more richly staffed paper today than when Kushner bought it. In a memo to his staff published by the blog LA Observed after the layoffs were announced, Kushner wrote that he now has 370 journalists — uh, make that “content team members” — covering Orange County and Los Angeles County, up from 198 a year and a half ago.

An optimistic take would be that Kushner got ahead of himself and is now retrenching, but not retreating. No doubt we’ll know a lot more as 2014 unfolds.

Photo (cc) by CSUF Photos and published under a Creative Commons license. Some rights reserved.

Goldsmith awards reflect the changing media landscape

I recently had the privilege of helping to judge more than 100 entries for the 2013 Goldsmith Prize for Investigative Reporting, which is administered by Harvard’s Joan Shorenstein Center. We chose six finalists, which were announced immediately, and a winner, which will be honored on Tuesday evening.

At a time when news organizations are struggling to survive, it was heartening to see so much good work. But the finalists also show how the world of investigative journalism is changing.

For instance, two of the newspapers that made it to the finalists’ circle, the Los Angeles Times and the Chicago Tribune, are owned by the troubled Tribune Co., which recently came out of bankruptcy and is now up for sale. If Tribune Co. ends up with the wrong owner, investigative excellence at its newspapers could become a thing of the past.

On the other hand, another finalist was produced by a collabortion among nonprofit news organizations: the Center for Public Integrity, Global Integrity, Public Radio International and the Investigative News Network. This is no longer surprising. Rather, it is further evidence that nonprofits are essential to carrying out public-service journalism.

Further evidence of the way things are in 2013: two of the finalists were produced by the New York Times, which, despite financial problems of its own, is more firmly established today as our leading news organization than perhaps at any other time in our history.

The sixth finalist is from the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, a Cox paper that has been experiencing something of a revival in recent years.

The finalists’ entries themselves run the gamut, from sexual abuse in Boy Scout troops, to Walmart’s corporate misbehavior in Mexico, to how the chemical and tobacco industries conspired to foist toxic flame retardants upon the public.

In addition to the investigative reporting award, also to be presented on Tuesday will be the Career Award for Excellence in Journalism, which will go to keynote speaker Nicholas Kristof, a columnist for the New York Times. The Goldsmith Book Prize will go to Jonathan M. Ladd for “Why Americans Hate the Media and How it Matters” and Rebecca MacKinnon for “Consent of the Networked: The Worldwide Struggle for Internet Freedom.”

The event, which is open to the public, will begin at 6 p.m. in the John F. Kennedy Jr. Forum at 79 JFK St. near Harvard Square.

Marty Baron leaves Globe for Washington Post

Marty Baron

Weeks of rumors and speculation came to an end a little while ago with the announcement that Boston Globe editor Marty Baron will replace Marcus Brauchli as executive editor of the Washington Post. The Huffington Post has memos from Baron, Brauchli and Post publisher Katharine Weymouth.

This is a very smart move for the Post and for Baron, who’ll have the opportunity to rebuild a faded brand. Not that long ago, the New York Times and the Post were invariably mentioned in the same breath. There’s still a lot of great journalism in the Post, but the paper these days lags well behind the Times.

Brauchli, a former editor of the Wall Street Journal, got off to a rocky start at the Post. In 2009 he and then-new publisher Weymouth got embroiled in very bad idea: to put together paid “salons” featuring Post journalists, corporate executives and White House officials. As I wrote in the Guardian, there was evidence that Brauchli knew more about the salons than he was letting on.

I take Weymouth’s decision to replace Brauchli with Baron — and Baron’s decision to accept the offer — as a sign that she’s grown in the job and was able to assure Baron of it.

Baron arrived at the Globe in July 2001 to replace the retiring Matt Storin. (Here’s what I wrote about the transition for the Boston Phoenix.) Baron was executive editor of the Miami Herald before coming to the Globe, but he also had extensive experience at the Los Angeles Times and the New York Times. Many observers believed his stint in Boston would be relatively short, and indeed he was considered for a top job at the Times less than two years later.

Instead, Baron ended up staying in Boston for more than 11 years, winning six Pulitzers, including the public service award in 2003 for the Globe’s coverage of the Catholic pedophile-priest scandal. He has been a solid, steady presence — a journalist with high standards who made his mark at a time when the newspaper business, including the Globe, was steadily shrinking. He also gets digital.

Last February, at an event honoring him as the recipient of the Stephen Hamblett First Amendment Award, Baron told journalists they should stand up against the fear and intimidation to which they have been subjected. You’ll find the full text of his speech here, but here’s an excerpt:

In this environment, too many news organizations are holding back, out of fear — fear that we will be saddled with an uncomfortable political label, fear that we will be accused of bias, fear that we will be portrayed as negative, fear that we will lose customers, fear that advertisers will run from us, fear that we will be assailed as anti-this or anti-that, fear that we will offend someone, anyone. Fear, in short, that our weakened financial condition will be made weaker because we did something strong and right, because we simply told the truth and told it straight.

What’s good news for the Post is less than good news for the Globe. A new editor after 11 years of Baron would not necessarily be a bad thing, as every institution can benefit from change. But at this point it’s unclear who the candidates might be, and whether the next editor will come from inside or outside the Globe. And whoever gets picked will have a tough act to follow.

Baron will be a successor to the legendary Ben Bradlee and all that represents — the Pentagon Papers, Watergate and a boatload of Pulitzers. I think he was an inspired choice, and I wish him the best.

More: Peter Kadzis of The Phoenix has a must-read blog post on Baron’s departure. Great quote from an unnamed source: “On an existential level, I wonder if Marty gives a shit. He’s like a character out of Camus.”

Paul Conrad’s grin of affirmation

The director of our School of Journalism, Steve Burgard, was an editorial writer at the Los Angeles Times before coming to Northeastern. He passes along an anecdote about Paul Conrad, the Pulitzer Prize-winning cartoonist who died on Saturday at the age of 86:

I was a newly minted editorial writer at the Los Angeles Times in the early 1990s, camped at a pod in the secluded second-floor editorlal page spaces at the desk of somebody who was out on vacation. While I had high hopes for the work I might later do at the page in the coming years, I was certainly a new kid on the block in every respect at that time.

One afternoon while laboring over a draft editorial, I felt a woosh of air behind my head as a drawing plopped down in the desk in front of me. The great cartoonist was looming up behind over my shoulder. He didn’t give a hoot about my stature, and I’m not sure he yet knew my name. He was looking for reaction to something he’d just drawn, and for that important purpose anybody would do. A nod and a grin of affirmation later, he picked it up and moved on.

Like Daniel Schorr, who died earlier this summer, Conrad was a member of Richard Nixon’s “enemies list,” which, according to his obituary, he considered one of his greatest honors.

The newspaper business is greatly diminished from what it was when Conrad was at his peak. His passing diminishes it a little more.

Orwell, waterboarding and torture

Before the Bush-Cheney years, the New York Times and other large newspapers regularly referred to waterboarding as “torture.” After it was revealed that the United States was waterboarding terrorism suspects, those papers largely stopped. After all, President Bush explained in 2005, “This government does not torture people.”

So in true Orwellian fashion, editors decided that to describe waterboarding as torture would amount to a breach of objectivity, for no reason except that, all of a sudden, there were powerful people who disputed that characterization.

That is the conclusion of a paper released earlier this year by the Joan Shorenstein Center on the Press, Politics and Public Policy, at Harvard’s Kennedy School. Titled “Torture at the Times: Waterboarding in the Media” (pdf), the study includes the following findings:

  • From the early 1930s until 1999, the New York Times characterized waterboarding as torture in 44 of 54 articles on the subject (81.5 percent), and the Los Angeles Times in 26 of 27 articles (96.3 percent).
  • From 2002 to 2008, the New York Times referred to waterboarding as torture in just two of 143 articles (1.4 percent); the Los Angeles Times, three of 63 (4.8 percent); the Wall Street Journal, one of 63 (1.6 percent); and USA Today, not at all.
  • “[T]he newspapers are much more likely to call waterboarding torture if a country other than the United States is the perpetrator.”

The study also finds that opinion writers at those papers were more likely to associate waterboarding with the T-word than were the news columns — further evidence that news editors deviated from the long-established understanding of what waterboarding really is in order to avoid being accused of anti-administration bias.

The study concludes:

The results of this study demonstrate that there was a sudden, significant, shift in major print media’s treatment of waterboarding at the beginning of the 21st century. The media’s modern coverage of waterboarding did not begin in earnest until 2004, when the first stories about abuses at Abu Ghraib were released. After this point, articles most often used words such as “harsh” or “coercive” to describe waterboarding or simply gave the practice no treatment, rather than labeling it torture as they had done for the previous seven decades.

The Shorenstein Center has documented a shocking abrogation of duty by our top newspapers in helping Americans understand what the Bush-Cheney administration was doing in their name.

The study came out in April. I’m writing about it now because the redoubtable Jay Rosen tweeted about it yesterday. This is important stuff, and I hope Rosen has given it the push it needs to become more widely discussed.

Image via Wikimedia Commons.

Arrogance and anger over newspapers’ decline

us dollar billsNewspapers executives have the right to charge whatever they want for their products, be it the print edition, Web-site access or speciality channels such as Kindle and mobile editions. The public, in turn, has the right to decide whether to buy or seek its news elsewhere.

What news organizations do not have a right to do is raise the price of what they produce by creating artificial scarcity through an illegal cartel.

Thus it was that Los Angeles Times media columnist Timothy Rutten’s latest commentary became the talk of the Twitterverse over the weekend. Jay Rosen, Dan Gillmor, Vin Crosbie and I were among those kicking Rutten’s column around.

Rutten, in calling for an exemption from federal law so that newspaper companies can collude on a plan to charge for online access, made some important points about government’s role in fostering a free and independent press. In particular, he singled out the favorable postal rates going back to the earliest days of the republic as a key factor in the rise of a vigorous Fourth Estate. (Paul Starr, in his 2006 book “The Creation of the Media,” traces those postal policies to Colonial times, and identifies them as an important reason that newspapers and magazines became a mass medium in the United States in a way that they never did in Europe.)

But Rutten undermines his argument with unwarranted arrogance, including flashes of anger, at what has happened to his business. Here is a particularly choice passage:

[I]f Congress acts as it should, it will do so not on behalf of newspapers but for their readers. The press, after all, does not assert 1st Amendment protections on its own behalf but as the custodian of such protections on behalf of the American people.

Stating that the press is the “custodian” of the First Amendment is breathtaking not only for its insular cluelessness, but also because it goes against basic constitutional principles. Rutten should re-read the Supreme Court’s landmark Branzburg v. Hayes decision of 1972, in which Justice Byron White explained in ringing language why it would be wrong to grant journalists a constitutional privilege to protect their anonymous sources:

[L]iberty of the press is the right of the lonely pamphleteer who uses carbon paper or a mimeograph just as much as of the large metropolitan publisher who utilizes the latest photocomposition methods.

I don’t think White got it entirely right — surely certain types of journalism could be protected, as opposed to a professional class of journalists. But he’s inspiring in his assertion that the First Amendment belongs to all of us, and that we the people, not the press alone, are its custodians. Today, of course, the pamphleteers are armed with computers; they are legion, and they are not lonely.

Like Rutten, I want to see the newspaper business find a way out of the mess it’s in. Outside of newspaper Web sites, sources of news that consumers do not have to pay for — principally television and radio stations and their Web sites — do a fine job with the basics of local coverage.

But let’s take the Boston Globe as an example of two entirely different dilemmas. Yesterday’s edition included two stories that required a considerable amount of journalistic enterprise — a deep analysis of Boston Mayor Tom Menino’s development record and an investigative feature into the death of 7-year-old Nathaniel Turner, whose father has been charged with his murder. Those are the types of stories that are too expensive to do in the world of fast, cheap Web journalism.

On the other hand, have you seen the new WBUR.org? Combining news from its local staff with reports from NPR, the station’s Web site has the makings of a high-quality online newspaper. If the Globe started charging for access to Boston.com, maybe the Boston Herald would follow suit. But WBUR (90.9 FM), as a public station with hundreds of thousands of listeners, is going to keep its Web access free — as will New England Cable News and the city’s broadcast television and radio stations. Given that there is a considerable amount of overlap in the Globe’s and WBUR’s audiences (affluent, well-educated, liberal), the Globe would charge for Web access at its peril.

Absolutely no one knows the way forward for the troubled newspaper business. My own hope is that, once the recession ends, newspapers can thrive through a combination of smaller-circulation but more-expensive print editions, subscription fees for non-Web speciality products for the Kindle, cell phones and the like, and a more imaginative approach to Web advertising.

What makes no sense whatsover is the Rutten plan: a backroom deal to charge for something that readers have made clear they are not willing to pay for.