Monday, December 15, 2008

How Not to Be Missed: A lesson from the Los Angeles Times in how to die quietly and assure that no one cries at your funeral


Which is more interesting?

1. In Niger, nomads with battered Soviet-era weapons are fighting the army to control the uranium under the soil.
— or —
2. Israel is moving to “shore up” pensions.
Another pair:

1. Radicals are protesting at the university of Athens in the wake of a 15-year-old being shot and killed.
— or —
2. A power struggle inside Somalia’s government “grew worse Sunday.”
How about:

1. “Somalia’s president fires prime minister but may not have the authority to do so.”

— or —
2. The above-mentioned story about a Somalian power struggle growing worse.

Final set:
1. The British Prime minister is trying to defuse tensions between India and Pakistan in the wake of the Mumbai terrorist attack.
— or —
2. Samir Geaga, a former Lebanese warlord who spent 11 years in prison, says he's "a changed man."

In each of the pairs above, No. 1 is a leading story from today's world coverage in the New York Times. No. 2 is a leading story from today's world coverage in the Los Angeles Times. And, in each of the pairs above, it's clear that the Los Angeles Times has a serious problem.

Both papers carried the news that Bush had shoes thrown at him. (And, despite the fact that most of us saw it live online yesterday, it was reported in both papers with "first-day leads," meaning their angle was that it happened and not another spin that incorporates analysis or aftermath, making the papers look about as relevant and groundbreaking Ford's rollout of the 1990 Escort.)

New York Times columnist Paul Krugman has been writing about the German chancellor's opposition to a European economic rescue plan. Los Angeles Times readers today wouldn't know anything about that.

Worse, those lame Los Angeles Times story selections are more prominent in the paper than everything but front-page news. When you open today's Los Angeles Times, the first thing you see staring at you on Page 3 in big headline type is the news that Israel is shoring up pension plans.

The New York Times, conversely, starts most of its non-A1 international coverage on Page 6, after its "Monday Business" stories that are both relevant and interesting, including a story about how finance powerhouse Goldman Sachs is expected to report that its profits have dried up. (If you recall, this is the company in which superstar investor Warren Buffet recently invested billions just days before the stock started a freefall that has slashed the stock in half.)

Ever since the mid-1990s when I was a staff reporter and editor for the Los Angeles Times' community news division, I've watched in horror as the paper's bosses made one stupid decision after another. But business judgment and news judgment are two different things. True, all the lame story selections in today's LA Times may be caused by staff cutbacks. But if you have a reporter to cover Israeli pensions, couldn't you put that same reporter to better use?

The international story selection is so bad that the LA Times would actually do better to just follow every story of the New York paper. Every day, open up the New York Times, assign an LA Times reporter to every story the NY Times covered, and run it a day later. Day-late interesting stories are better than no interesting stories at all.

My biggest beef with the editorial direction of the Los Angeles Times is that the company has utterly failed to see the bottom-line benefits of community news coverage. I believe that rinky-dink community coverage, done cost-effectively, could have prevented what now seems an unstoppable exodus of readers. And I remember, back when the Tribune Co. took over the Los Angeles Times, there was talk that the new owners wanted to make the paper the New York Times of the West — the undisputed leader in national and international coverage. The people from Chicago didn't bother to ask what Los Angeles readers want. They were going to tell them what they wanted — high-brow world coverage — while killing community news sections at the same time. Then, they couldn't even deliver adequate world coverage, much less force it on a readership that clearly has a greater interest in entertainment-industry news and quality schools coverage.

There's an old "Simpsons" episode in which chronic wino Barney Gumble makes a documentary film about his alcoholism. The closing line: "Don't cry for me. I'm already dead." (Lest you think that the "Simpsons" were getting too serious, I mention that the film was titled "Puke-a-hontas.")

The last throes of the Los Angeles Times seem to echo Barney's plea. Yet, coming from them it's not funny.

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4 comments:

Drew said...

Nicely put, June. And any well-argued point that's underscored by a Simpsons reference is tops in my book.

Working in the newspaper industry myself, I'd be interested at some point in having a conversation with you --- perhaps not via blog comments --- about your newspaper career, what you're doing now, and how you'd advise someone with writerly, reporterly aspirations to best find a place in this world.

June Casagrande said...

You're right. That is too long a conversation to have here. But I think that the guiding principle of all such conversations is: The world will continue to need news gatherers and people to assure the quality of their copy. The current shakeup may result in fewer people doing those jobs, it may threaten the standards by which those jobs are performed. But, in the end, those skills will be needed. In fact, it seems people are consuming more printed information about national and world events these days not less. It's just a question of where the jobs will lie once the earth stops shaking and whether there will be substantially fewer of them.

I don't know how best to find a place in the brave new journalism world. But I think that what I would do if I were starting out is try to land an internship gig at one of the most popular and best-respect online news providers -- Slate.com, Salon.com, Truthdig.com, Huffingtonpost.com -- those are the first that come to mind. The economics of these are not yet such that they're offering $90K-a-year reporting jobs with full benefits (many rely on wire stories, in fact), but I think those would be good places to have an in when the economics of the business catch up with the other changes.

Despite recent economic upsets at NPR, I bet their stock is going up, so to speak. As the blogosphere continues to make it tougher to distinguish between reliable and unreliable news sources, I think high-quality listener-supported media will be that much more valued by its listeners.

For enterprising types, I bet there are viable opportunities to start up community news sites. Monitor the local police logs, sit in on the city hall meetings, take pictures at the high school football games, and you've got yourself one grateful readership. As I said, I think that could prove economically viable.

The truth is, though, if I really knew the answer, I'd probably be in different position. So, take that as pseudo-wisdom from someone who doesn't know while also seeking out people who do!

Matthew Newton said...

Shouldn't there be a comma after "them" in the last sentence?

June Casagrande said...

I'm glad you didn't read yesterday before I reread and noticed that I had spelled "too" as "to."

If I hadn't introduced that last sentence with "Yet," I probably would have put a comma after "them." But comma rules are flexible enough to give you some elbow room to avoid too many commas in one sentence.

I suppose that sentence would be okay with no commas. Or with none after the "yet" but one after the "them."

As I said, there's some flexibility there.

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