That’s Capital Topic: Media Economics
an increasingly complicated media market. Television, especially news coverage, spans a broadcasting market for
too motley and sprawled to communicate a coherent message. Radio continues to shine; with all that time
spent in cars, people would gnaw their
left arms off if we didn’t have something to listen to. And print… *sigh*… print has fallen on truly hard
Here's a quick overview of the latest mishandled and misconceived gambit at the Times: the guest editorial turn with the Sunday Op-Ed Section. Given the importance of Hollywood in LA, it seemed like a pretty good idea to have well known director Brian Glazer on board as the Guest Editor... until it turned out that the gig was lined up through romantic connections. You can check out the sordid details here and here.
And it’s not just a matter of tabloid-sheet scandal that’s damaged the paper. Some of the problem is good-ol’-fashioned incompetence.
Exhibit Number Two:
Michael Kinsley messed up the Op-Ed pages with ill-conceived experiments like
Exhibit Number Three: Dean Baquet, who took over as
Editor in July of 2005, got kicked to the curb by November of the following
year. During his time “in charge,” he and his
overseers with the Tribune Company haggled and bickered, but as far as I could
tell, very little real editing got done. When he left the LA Times he
took over as The New York Times Washington Bureau Chief. Talk about falling upward.
For Exhibit Number Four I simply direct the reader’s
attention to the paper itself. Or at least, what is left of it.
I could go on, but you get the idea.
You can follow more on the disintegration of the LA
Times at LA Observed, written and
edited by Kevin Roderick. This blog’s mix of dish and analysis on LA’s media
has made it one of the more indispensable news outlets in town.
Sam Zell bought Tribune, which owns the paper, in March of this year. Given that he put over $8 billion dollars
into the deal, many of us see his purchase as a sign that new energy will come
to the paper. (Many others see more cost-cutting; read: further
We’ve also heard that he might sell off the paper as
a standalone operation to a local buyer. Perhaps this person or group will revitalize
the paper. But I’m not holding my breath. The most likely candidates, Eli Broad and David Geffen,
may well make the right moves, but I do not consider either one a saint. Furthermore, neither has an especially broad
vision of LA’s identity. More than
anything else, LA needs a media outlet that embraces the full-on, sometimes-hard-to-like,
surprising messiness of the city.
In this regard, The Times has fallen short. This is
hardly a new trend. It certainly predates
2000, when the Tribune Company bought the paper. In spite of The Times’ shortcomings, though, we
had alternatives: I know many folks who are about ten or fifteen years older
than I am who still lament the closing of the Herald Examiner,
which had a particularly strong City Desk (at least according to those who wax
nostalgic for the paper).
By the time I started reading the news in the 1980s, the
LA Weekly and The LA Reader provided real alternatives to The Times. A few other alternative rags have come and
gone since including New Times, and
most recently, The LA Alternative Press,
which included a solid column on local politics by Marc Haefele. LA City Beat
(along with the Valley Beat and the Pasadena Weekly, which are pretty much
the same operation) continues to roll along
by serving the San Fernando Valley suburbs more intensively than the other
weeklies. It seems to work for the
A number of outlets serve the Black market, including
The Wave, Our Weekly , The LA Watts Times, and The Los Angeles Sentinel.
And LA is also home to a rich group of non-English papers, most visibly La Opinion.
And then there are all the suburban papers like The LA
The Pasadena Star Tribune, The Daily Breeze,
The Press Telegram,
and others, which focus on particular suburban zones. In this case, The San
Fernando Valley, The San Gabriel Valley, The South Bay, and Long Beach and the
For the most part, though, these papers – focused as
they are on the “alternative” segment, a particular language or ethnic group,
or a particular clutch of suburbs – do not provide the wide-angle view of LA by
their very nature.
Even though the LA
Weekly is technically in business, it has fallen on especially hard times
since being sold to New Times out of
In fairness, though, the Weekly scored its first
Pulitzer for the magnificent food columns of Jonathan Gold. BTW, Gold’s columns go way beyond food
criticism: they serve as the best guide to exploring and understanding
Granted, LA isn’t known for its great publications.
But this combination of scandal, incompetence, and unimaginative management
only makes a bad situation that much worse.
So what to do? Well, the founder of the LA Weekly,
Jay Levin jumps into the fray with a new glossy, RealTalk LA,
aimed at the cosmopolitan part of LA’s culture.
Who knows if this will work. It’s a tall order for a few reasons: this
audience hasn’t developed the habit of reading about itself (mostly because LA
publications summarily ignore this slice of the local culture). This, in turn, means that this audience is
hard to define and may well be off the radar of advertisers and market research
firms. As we say in the social sciences:
if you aren’t counted, you don’t count. And I don’t see much evidence that market analysis has figured out how
to count this motley, hard-to-pigeonhole subculture.
I picked up the first issue of the mag and enjoyed
the style of it. Articles on Ozomotli
and local radio/public affairs hostess Dominique DiPrima give it a decidedly
local flavor, while trying to take the reader beyond what one already knows
about LA. In essence, the magazine tries to help the reader “connect the dots,”
which is something that other media do so little of. But will the audience be large enough to
sustain the expenses? Ozo is great, but still
a bit “nichy”; Dominique DiPrima may well have the best talk radio program in
LA, but it comes on at 4:00 AM on KJLH, which is dominated by the other Urban
Stations in the area, Power 106 and The Beat.
Mr. Levin’s efforts attracted the attention of the Christian Science Monitor,
which seems to be as skeptical as I am about the whole affair.
But what I feel that the Monitor does not is
hope. In spite of the advertisers being
a step behind in how they view LA, and how Angelenos view themselves, I hope
that the media market here will support a publication that looks on the
diverse, hard-to-get-a-handle-on nature of LA with affection rather than
confusion, suspicion, or even derision. LA badly needs a voice – either popular or professional – that does what
seems to come naturally in other towns where roots run deeper and the citizens
have more of a stake and an understanding of what happens in their backyards
After all, what are the media really worth? It’s a tough question, largely because the
media refer to the environment around them, and because they don’t produce
tangible outputs. But media which build
a sense of identity, connection, and understanding can transform a place.
Realizing these goals can be thwarted by the drive to
maximize profits. A handful of news
operations have managed to yoke what can be done with good editorial to
attracting the kinds of readers that advertisers want to reach, but we’ve seen
very little of this in LA.
This goes way beyond simple economic analysis; it
cuts right to the quick of how to edit the media, how to connect what the media
do to a coherent audience, how to explain this to advertisers, and how to
manage the operations day-to-day functions. That’s a serious bit of juggling.
Alas, here in LA, so many balls have hit the floor
that it will take years to repair the damage. The blogosphere provides
life-support in the meantime, including the aforementioned LA Observed, Metroblogging LA , Media Bistro,
LA Voice, LA Indy Media, City Watch LA (which includes Marc Haefele's insightful contributions to political reportage) now , and others.
But none of these can pull people together as well as a mainstream media outlet
that does its job the right way. In the meantime, we blog, we observe the city,
and pay attention. And hope that the
worm will turn.