To the WSJ Staff: Walking (Out) A Mile in Labor’s Shoes
State of the economy

The State of LA’s Media

That’s Capital Topic: Media Economics

 

Los Angeles

has become 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 times.

Let’s start at the top or the center if you will: The Los Angeles Times.  Since scooping up a clutch of Pulitzers in 2004, the paper seems hell-bent-for-leather to show that defeat really can be snatched from the jaws of victory.

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 “Wikitorials.” 

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 disintegration.)

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 paper. 

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 Daily News, 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 Mid-Cities.

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  Phoenix. Leading up to and away from this event, many of the Weekly’s best writers bailed. By the time New Times hired Jill Stewart to oversee the news operation, she didn't have to worry about executing a makeover; it had been accomplished through attrition. Jon Wiener recently lamented the undead status of the LA Weekly in The Nation, noting that the papers has shed its progressive politics in favor of more style and entertainment coverage.

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 Los Angeles from end-to-end offered by any media outlet. We need more of this kind of connection to the city.

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.

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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 and beyond.

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.

 

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