Sunday, December 04, 2005

Los Angeles Times fires everybody (mostly)

Los Angeles Times building

For a minute there – and with the mess of Hurricane Katrina to inspire their better journalistic impulses - it looked as if big media news had regained its voice, and then the hammer fell: The Los Angles Times’ owner fired everybody. Okay, not everybody; they kept the copy boy.

Back when the administration was beating the war drums and pretending to believe the intelligence they were getting from Curveball and Ahmad Chalabi, even as The New York Times’ Judith Miller was salting the mine and Tom Friedman furiously scribbling inflammatory (and plainly asinine) arguments for bringing the Shock and Awe road show to Iraq, many Internet citizens, including this writer, saw the whole thing as a setup.

And we weren’t even reporters, scuffing our shoe leather on the White House or the Pentagon beat, or even on speaking terms with Hans Blix or Scott Ritter; no, we got our information from the newspapers for the most part and some TV. The very same newspapers that reported UN inspectors finding nada, while burying directly contradictory reports on page 13 and stridently screaming for Iraqi blood on the editorial pages.

A great many of us were able - from the bits and pieces of journeyman reporting that we did find - to put together a coherent story that pointed to an administration that wanted to go to war come hell or high water - although as to precisely why no one could then say. It was obvious that the Iraqis were out of the loop vis a vis the World Trade Center attack; hell, every news outlet on the planet reported that the hijackers were Saudis and Osama bin Laden was in Pakistan or maybe the south of France.

The Internet came in handy for this one, though. With just a few minutes of Googling, you could find reams of info – Greg Palast was outstanding on this subject – about the Bush-Saudi-Halliburton connections; why weren’t the MSM editors Googling along with us? (One presumes they have Internet access.) I can understand their hesitancy to use Lexis/Nexis: the service costs a bundle, but Google is free and covers much the same information.

So as we rapidly sank up to our collarbones in Iraq - I believe the correct phrase is “bogged down” – the American press blithely focused on white chicks fleeing their grooms, a pederasty case and other trivia, earning insane megabucks in the process, and then along comes Hurricane Katrina. The Bush administration was revealed to be a hopeless pack of political hacks and the press got righteous.

Result? Managing editors turned their reporters loose and we got great reporting for about thirty days – in print and on TV - and then the Tribune Company (titular owner of The LA Times, The Chicago Tribune, as well as Tribune Entertainment among other things) lowered the boom on the editorial staff of the best newspaper in the country – The Los Angeles Times, winner of 13 Pulitzer Prizes in five years - and fired some 8% of its staff (85 bodies), among them its top editors, opinion writers and foreign correspondents. But they kept Max Boot’s worthless op-ed crap.

Why? Was it because the editorial staff had found their backbones after all these years and started reporting the real skinny, infuriating their corporate owners? Nope; it was because the Tribune Company’s Wall Street owners weren’t happy with the 20% profits the Times was generating; they wanted more, so they cut the editorial staff to increase the bottom line.

And what is the Times' return on investment? 20%! That’s a better bottom line than in the pharmaceutical industry, and they’re raping their customers.

Not that profits are obscene in and of themselves, but owners need to realize that there is a natural bottom-line profit to be had from infotainment and a different bottom line for traditional news outlets, and they are incompatible. Time/Life spun off People magazine from a Time magazine weekly column and left the news magazine otherwise intact and everybody’s happy.
The newspaper biz has been in shakeup mode* for many years: readership dwindled as citizens shifted their attention to TV infotainment (NBC’s Nightly News is the single largest source of news for Americans, according to NBC News); Spanish-language TV and newspapers have taken a large share of the info-consuming public the Times once monopolized, people have forgotten how to read, and, of course, there’s the Internet.

It’s not completely doom and gloom: Los Angeles county presently has three major metros: The LA Times, the Spanish-language La Opinion and the Daily News - which is published in and for the San Fernando Valley – but this last might as well be from the other side of the planet for real Los Angelenos.

Not that I’m proposing that the Internet totally replace the traditional American newspaper in the immediate future, but given the slashing of editorial budgets happening at newspapers all over the country, along with the mind candy that is driving all real news from the front page and network news, most of my own information is gleaned from online sources, and most of them foreign, and I no longer watch the evening news. Where can an honest managing editor or print reporter go?

How about the Internet?

Yes Gentle Readers, the World Wide Web, the blogosphere, XMS/RSS feeds, the BBC and Reuters newswires on your desktop and CNN instant bulletins in your e-mail box, 24/7. For free and no corporate greedhounds.

Robert Scheer, multiple prize-winning-recently-fired employee of the once-mighty Los Angeles Times has teamed up with Los Angeles entrepreneur Zuade Kaufman, son Christopher Scheer, and Richard Core, et al. and now edits, starting yesterday.

Welcome aboard the Truth Train, Robert & Company. Good day and good luck.

*Warning: audio tape of a radio program with educated people having an insightful discussion.

UPDATE: in March of 2011, the NY Times established an Internet paywall, which many pundits predicted would effectively crash the legendary newspaper. Well, great things come to those who dare to dream and all that, as is reporting that NYT's paywall has actually increased circulation. How about that, folks? 

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Robert Scheer's surfacing in blog-dom was a hopeful sign of his staying power. Might we also ask whether alternative weekly newspapers are having likewise a toll on metro dailies falling circulation numbers? Of so, to what extent?