Tuesday, October 24, 2006

Robert Niles at UCS says it is time to "put up"


Put up or shut up: Newspapers aren't the only forum for great journalism

Commentary: Some critics want to buy the Los Angeles Times from Tribune to protect the quality of local journalism. But there's another way to do that.

By Robert Niles
University of Southern California

Posted: 2006-10-09

Plenty of commentators have expressed their anguish over Tribune Company's management of the Los Angeles Times. The controversy over further cuts in the paper's newsroom this month has cost the publisher his job. Several super-rich Californians have made overtures to buy the paper from Chicago-based Tribune. Yet in all the commotion, one question remains unaddressed: Since when is the Los Angeles Times the only place anyone can do great journalism in L.A.?

Obviously, The Times has done its share. Over the past decade, the paper has distinguished itself with multiple Pulitzer Prizes, as well as engaging daily stories that expose injustices from crooked judges to L.A.'s pathetic Skid Row. Yet failure balances The Times' recent triumph. Tribune-mandated cutbacks have reduced the newsroom from about 1,200 to a little more than 900. That's led to the closure of most of The Times' suburban bureaus and a massive reduction in neighborhood coverage.

Word from the newsroom reports that Tribune wants the newsroom even smaller, to about 800 or so. That's sparked concern from local business leaders, who fear, along with most Times reporters, that a smaller Times newsroom won't be able to properly cover Southern California. Times Publisher Jeffrey M. Johnson and Editor Dean Baquet have protested, too. Now, Johnson's off the job. One might think that business and government leaders would enjoy having fewer eyes looking into their affairs. Writing in Saturday's Los Angeles Times, media critic Tim Rutten pointed out that an aggressive local press has helped communities grow, by exposing the inefficiencies of graft and corruption. Rutten correctly credited newspaper managers for helping enrich America, and themselves, over the past half century.

"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."

But established newspapers are not, and need not be, the only actors in the news industry. Rutten acknowledged that "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."

If the Tribune Company wishes to cut the Los Angeles Times' newsroom into irrelevance, that ought to be the Tribune's right as the LAT's owner. Johnson and Baquet deserve credit for fighting for their newsroom. But there's no need for those who have expressed interest in buying The Times to keep their money in their pockets, should Tribune continue to refuse to sell.

Want to protect and improve the quality of local journalism in Southern California? Great. Then go hire some of those folks that Tribune's about to lay off and start up your own newsroom. Worried about the high cost of starting up a new print newspaper, in an era when print's losing readers to the Web? Why bother? Simply start a Web newsroom instead. Worried about the loss of influence publishing online instead of in print? Um, didn't we just say that print was losing readers to the Web?

Many local journalists already have made the switch to online publishing. Just scan the dozens listed on Kevin Roderick's LAObserved.com, under the headings "Media In or About Los Angeles" and "Selected Blogs and Websites." Contrary to the attitude of some within the Times building, many blogs and independent websites feature smart, original reporting. And many more would if they could cash a check from the likes of Eli Broad to support their efforts.

Take the $1 billion that analysts have estimated The Times could fetch, divvy it among the paper's 900-some newsroom employees, and you've got a cool million-plus. Per employee. How many sharp, local investigative websites could be funded with that kind of cash? Heck, maybe a little competition might better get Tribune's attention.

Don't want to run a charity? Fine. Why not hire a few soon-to-be-out-of-work ad reps to go out and find advertisers for these existing and prospective local indie news websites? I've lost count of the number of journalists who want to start their own original reporting news websites but have not out of fear that they won't be able to sell enough ads to support themselves. They shouldn't have to. Let the ad folks sell the ads, and the reporters do the reporting. A smart, well-funded local ad network for indie websites, run by experienced local sales reps, could help sustain the quality of local reporting more effectively than any amount of op-ed handwringing will. And make a bundle of cash for its investors, too.

The point is, Los Angeles has a strong, entrepreneurial business community that shouldn't have to beg to Chicago for tough, local news coverage. If the Tribune Company doesn't want to fund that the way folks around here think it should, then fine. Now's the time for Tribune's critics to put up, or shut up.

The Web is waiting.


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