LA Times saga is big news for all papers

The Los Angeles Times is locked in a battle for control of its future that is an eerie mirror of the problems facing the restive news industry as a whole.

The Los Angeles Times is locked in a battle for control of its future that is an eerie mirror of the problems facing the restive news industry as a whole.

The Times is generally considered to be one of the nation's top four newspapers; the outcome of its current struggles could determine whether it retains that spot, and whether being a top paper is even something worth aspiring to in the Internet era.

In the past month, sharp disagreements between the Times' editorial leaders and the business executives at its owner, the Tribune Company, have surfaced in an unusually public way.

Dean Baquet, the Times' top editor, and publisher Jeffrey Johnson have both taken a stand against further editorial staff cuts that were requested by Tribune management. Baquet's predecessor, John Carroll, quit the paper after a round of previous cuts. Now, Baquet and Johnson may be setting themselves up as martyrs to the cause of newsroom quality maintenance if Tribune CEO Dennis FitzSimons decides to quell the rebellion the old-fashioned way.

Simultaneously, a group of deep-pocketed LA locals have been sending out feelers to the Tribune about the possibility of purchasing the paper outright. A Tribune board meeting on September 21 was expected to deliver a firmer idea of the company's position, but it appears that no matter what happens, the Times' clunky efforts to decide between investment and divestment will not leave the paper unscathed.

If one is to take everyone involved in the mess at their word - a questionable proposition, sure, but a useful one - then the Times is the first real test case of how to run a profitable, corporate-owned world-class paper in the digital age. The other three national papers of note - The New York Times, The Washington Post, and The Wall Street Journal - are all publicly traded, but controlled by families with deep histories; Tribune has no such roots with the LA Times, having acquired it just six years ago.

So while all four of America's great papers have trimmed staff, lost print circulation, and invested in online news, only at the LA Times will the corporate mantra of cost control and the journalist's mantra of a sacred newsroom come head to head in such a spectacular fashion.

Why does it matter? Theoretically, every cut in a national paper's newsroom should be replaced somewhere in the new media world, with bloggers or online news outlets picking up the slack in coverage. But in reality, newspapers produce the vast majority of all news in America, and there is as yet no real mechanism to replace them. When the best papers go south, the overall amount of reporting is unquestionably diminished.

Further, a paper with the stature of the LA Times represents much more than its daily word count.

"Its importance to the entire community can't be overstated," says Jerry Swerling, an LA veteran who heads PR studies at USC's Annenberg School. He notes that the Times is the key driver of LA news, meaning that "a healthy LA Times goes hand in hand with a healthy LA PR community."

Tribune's unswerving search for higher profit margins has Swerling fearing further cuts in coverage, but he believes the strong coalition of prominent community leaders who have emerged as vocal backers of the paper could hold out a ray of hope.

"The denouement of the LA Times story could be tragic," he says, "or heroically uplifting."

It may be folly to hope that local ownership will solve all of the paper's problems - Tribune CEO FitzSimons himself has made oblique references to the fiasco at the atrociously run (and privately owned) Santa Barbara News-Press - but right now, the Times' own fiasco is making any alternative to faceless corporate ownership an attractive one to journalists and citizens alike.

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