Monday, October 16, 2006

LA Times columnist sees survival of newspapers now at stake

More than jobs are at stake

PUBLISHED: Oct. 7, 2006

ORIGINAL URL:,1,2420450.column
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Regarding Media
By Tim Rutten

NEARLY 90 years ago, Walter Lippmann wrote, "The newspaper is in all its
literalness the bible of democracy, the book out of which a people
determines its conduct."

One need not share his predilection for Olympian overstatement to believe
that there's a great deal at stake in the distress and turmoil through
which American newspapers now are passing. Nowhere is that truer than in
Los Angeles, where The Times' publisher, Jeffrey M. Johnson, was forced
Thursday to resign because he resisted the Tribune Co.'s demand that he
further cut the staff that produces this paper. He has been replaced by
the Chicago Tribune's publisher, David D. Hiller, who . like Johnson . has
had a long career with Tribune, including service as the company's general
counsel and as manager of its interactive business.

Dean Baquet, The Times' editor who also resisted the demands
for reductions in staff, was asked to remain and has agreed to do so,
telling people within the paper that he intends to argue that further
diminishing the number of journalists he directs will undermine The Times'
ability to provide its readers with a newspaper of acceptable quality.
Since acquiring this paper as part of its purchase of Times Mirror six
years ago, Tribune has cut the number of reporters, editors, photographers
and designers from about 1,200 to 940. The paper's editors say that
Chicago believes that about 800 would be a more appropriate number. At the
same time, Tribune has reduced the number of people employed in producing
and distributing the paper from 5,300 to 2,800.

Johnson has said that his differences with Tribune turned not only on his
belief that "newspapers can't cut their way into the future" but also on
his frustration over Chicago's unwillingness to spend on initiatives
designed to arrest the paper's decline in circulation from 1.1 million
daily in 1999 to 852,000 this year.

Much that is of consequence to this paper's future will turn on the
relationship between Hiller, the third publisher installed by Tribune
since acquiring The Times, and Baquet, the second editor. Thursday, Hiller
told the Wall Street Journal that he and Baquet had "decided that we would
spend time in a conversation about the future of the newspaper. And then
we would know after those conversations whether we saw the way forward
with the newspaper going to the same place. And if it was going to the
same place we would go together, but we wouldn't know that until we had
the conversation, and I want to be very open and take a good fresh look at

Hiller's two predecessors, of course, did just that and came to
conclusions about this paper and its future that were unacceptable to

Lippmann's sentiments notwithstanding, it cannot be argued that a
newspaper's mere physical persistence is a guarantor of democracy or the
common good. On the eve of the Civil War, Americans were, per capita, the
greatest newspaper readers in the world. Yet those papers, little more
than vehicles for advertising and partisan vitriol, encouraged rather than
arrested a democratic society's slide into fratricide.

It was the memory of that searing descent that led the American historian
Henry Adams to muse in his memoirs that this nation's "politics, as a
practice, whatever its professions, has always been the systematic
organization of hatreds."

So it seemed 100 years ago to one of the American nation's greatest
interpreters, and so . as these days of bitter red state-blue state
division suggest . it could seem again. Newspapers have a vital role to
play in preventing that; indeed, it is the very essence of their
obligation to a society under the protecting wing of whose Constitution
they conduct their business. However, they can play that role and meet
that obligation only if they're up to the job. The remarkably constructive
and, not incidentally, lucrative part that major American newspapers have
come to play since World War II rests on three hard-won achievements:

One is the transformation of editorial pages from organs of mindless
partisan propaganda to civil voices of opinion. Papers still may lean
left, right or toward the center, but they overwhelmingly do so with an
attention to rules of argument and civility unimaginable in the
not-very-distant past. More important, they routinely make space for other
points of view and are rightly criticized when they fail to make enough
room. (It's interesting that the most striking of such transitions from
partisan rag to nonpartisan analyst occurred at the Chicago Tribune and
Los Angeles Times.) The second change involved the provision of adequate
resources to inform readers about local, national and foreign news.
Without facts there are no opinions that count for much, however well

In some large part, the astonishing financial success of postwar American
journalism rested on a recognition that an educated and increasingly
urbanized readership demanded more sophisticated information on a broader
range of topics than ever before and on newspaper managers' willingness to
invest in covering them. Finally, by stripping muckraking of its
ideological component, big-city newspapers created modern investigative
reporting. In doing so, they unwittingly cut the ties that long had bound
them to their cities' moneyed establishment. It's now taken for granted
that it is through vigorous investigative reporting that a newspaper
demonstrates that it holds the interests of its community as a whole above
those of any narrow faction or class.

Doing all these things costs money, but by investing in civil and
reasonable editorial pages, in truly serious local, national and foreign
reporting, and in vigorous, nonpartisan investigative journalism, the
owners of American newspapers not only enriched their communities but also
made themselves wealthier than even they ever had dreamed. The era into
which we now are moving will involve new ways of distributing journalism .
new combinations of print and online venues and, surely, avenues we cannot
foresee. There is nothing to suggest, though, that readers' expectations
regarding the scope of major news organization's journalism or the demands
of service to the common good will in any way diminish.

To borrow a homey image from Henry Adams' agrarian America, the smart guys
among our newspaper managers will not be the ones who eat their own seed
corn simply to fatten themselves through another fleeting season.

Whether newspapers belong to individual proprietors or corporate
stockholders, the future . and its profits . will belong to those who are
both socially responsible enough and financially hard-headed enough to
carry what is indispensable about the present into the era now struggling
to be born.

Los Angeles will be one of the places where we'll eventually find out
whether newspaper journalism's current distress is a birth pang or a death


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