By Dan Kennedy • The press, politics, technology, culture and other passions

Auletta’s revealing Times

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.

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  1. Anonymous

    Good analysis, DK. I agree that WE see “fair, neutral” reporting as necessary but America seems to prefer Fox and The Boston Globe. Seldom do we think of a media personality these days without knowing their ideological bent.(Was Bob Zelnick a Democrat or Republican?)Everyone wants a high Q score in a “hot” medium. Guess it’s like people who complain about inept politicians yet keep electing them to office.

  2. Secret Agent Cathy

    It was interesting to read Auletta’s observation that the LA Times has a diffuse, scattered readership partly because LA has no subways. In Boston I do see people reading both local dailies plus the NYT on the T, but my own suspicion is that it’s the free, dumbed-down Metro as much as the Internet that’s killing off newspapers here. Okay, so the Globe owns the Metro. But it’s not much consolation to think that if the Globe disappears, the company that owned it will still be here.

  3. Sven

    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.I have no doubt that’s why many blog readers are abandoning mainstream outlets. But for me, it’s more a matter of trust and credibility. When I read the big papers anymore, particularly in stories with a connection to politics, I can’t shake the feeling that I’m being played for a sucker.Perhaps the biggest stone stuck in my craw is the Plame Fiasco. The press has been two steps behind the story from the start. I read David Corn’s account on the Web days after Novak’s column came out. It was weeks before the papers even acknowledged something untoward had happened, and several more before they even began to flesh out the basic outline of the story. I remember thinking, “Where the hell is The Times?” An emotional reaction, no doubt, but it turned out to be a pretty good question.

  4. Dan Kennedy

    Sven – With all due respect, I would argue that there’s a flaw in your example. David Corn is a veteran journalist and the longtime Washington editor for The Nation. He and Josh Marshall – another journalist who happens to have a blog – were the two leading forces on the Plame story right from day one. My point is that the people you were relying on for the truth about the Plame matter were real journalists who are skilled reporters and researchers, not pure bloggers.

  5. Sven

    Believe me, I’m not a blogger triumphalist. But the question you raised was about “large, centralized newsgathering operations” like the New York Times. David and Josh are indeed skilled, experienced reporters, but I’d hardly call them “mainstream.” IIRC, it was Josh’s frustration with working for traditional outlets that led him to start his own online media empire. I’m under no delusion that great writers like David and Josh are the answer, either. I agree that the NYT is needed more than ever. Talking Points Memo may help satisfy my hankerin’ for political news, but only an instutution as powerful as the Times, backed by its credibility with the public, can hope to stand up to the executive branch and force it to come clean with information. Thus my frustration that it hasn’t been performing its duty and, in my view, eroding its credibility.

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