I’m late to the party in commenting on Ken Auletta’s article about the corporate wars being fought at the Los Angeles Times. The New Yorker chose not to post Auletta’s story on its Web site, though it should show up eventually at Auletta’s own site. Editor & Publisher posted highlights earlier this week. But it wasn’t until last night that I finally had a chance to read the entire article for myself. So I don’t have much profound to add to what’s already been said.
I don’t read the L.A. Times except for an occasional article on its Web site, and only then because a blogger – usually Romenesko – has pointed to it. Still, there’s no doubt that the Times is one of our great papers, and I’ve taken some interest in it since reading David Halberstam’s “The Powers That Be” in the 1970s.
Auletta, in his patented polite, understated manner, details the clash between the Times’ top two editors and the Tribune Co., whose executives appear to be suffering from a combination of profit-crazed greed and journalistic envy. The problem is that Tribune’s flagship, the Chicago Tribune, is both a bigger money-maker and a lesser newspaper than the Times. The ostensible good guys in this piece are Times editor John Carroll, who recently left, and Dean Baquet, who moved up from Carroll’s second-in-command to the top post following Carroll’s departure. But Carroll and Baquet, in Auletta’s telling, come off as editors with some flaws of their own.
Auletta is sometimes criticized for excessive delicacy, but I think that criticism is wrong-headed. People say things – sometimes outrageous things – to Auletta, and if he refrains from plunging in the knife, he nevertheless affords them every opportunity to perform ritual suicide. My favorite moment comes from Baquet, commenting on his and Carroll’s efforts to staff up the Times with talent from across the country, often at the expense of building a local identity. Baquet told Auletta that “we still haven’t mastered making the paper feel like it is edited in Los Angeles.”
Good grief. Is this really the man who is Los Angeles’ best hope to stave off the bean-counting barbarians from Chicago? As Mickey Kaus – entirely up to the task of offsetting Auletta’s bile deficit – observes, this lack of a local sensibility is so pervasive that the Times this week didn’t even manage to report that Al Qaeda may have targeted Los Angeles’ tallest building. This Kaus post on Auletta’s piece is worth reading, too.
Though Auletta’s article is ultimately about a great – or perhaps potentially great – newspaper’s soul, what really struck me was its end-of-an-era feel – not just for the L.A. Times, but for the newspaper business in general. For years, everyone has predicted that the Internet would eventually kill the newspaper industry as we know it. Lately, though, it seems that it’s finally happening.
Auletta writes, for example, that even as newspaper circulation is falling, the L.A. Times’ Web site attracts 4.6 million unique visitors per month, the Washington Post’s 10.4 million and the New York Times’ 12.5 million. These sites are loaded with advertising, and though their content is free (except for N.Y. Times columnists), their corporate owners also do not have to pay for printing and delivery. Somehow, though, the Web versions of these papers have not been successful enough to relieve the financial pressures on these papers. And, as Auletta notes, the industry is going through another round of cost-cutting, with the New York Times Co. recently announcing reductions at its flagship, the Times, and at its second-largest paper, the Boston Globe.
Theoretically there’s no reason why large daily newspapers can’t make the transition to the Web. I suspect that the biggest problem right now is that newspapers have been forced to invest in their Web sites even as they continue to pay for printing and distribution of the paper product. Eliminate that enormous production cost, and the bottom line might look a lot better.
Still, there’s a real question as to whether large, centralized newsgathering operations can survive the transition to an online world. They’re needed as much as ever, but the Web – and blogland, the sexy subset of the moment – favors opinion over fact, speed over depth, emotion over analysis.
Blogs – good ones, anyway – are wonderful in many ways, but they’re no substitute for the fair, neutral reporting that is the central mission of newspapers and other mainstream outlets. Ultimately, Auletta’s article is a meditation on whether that mission is on the verge of being abandoned.