WTF Happened To The Los Angeles Times?

I was fortunate enough to have started my career in journalism during a real old fashioned newspaper war, one waged between the Los Angeles Times — its Orange County edition — and the Orange County Register. In 1989 and through the early 90s, the papers invested in people and newsprint to win the readership of the area. I was one of the many troops hired on, first with the Times and later jumping ship to the Register.

Now nearly 15 years later, I’m back in Orange County and wondering what happened. Yes, from various friends and former coworkers, I’ve heard of the cuts over the years. And yes, I’ve read about the decline of newspapers in general and some of the decline in particular for my two alma maters. And yes, I’ve seen the changes in both papers over time, when I’ve read them on occasion during my yearly visits back home. But now resident again, it’s just shocking. Astounding is what I’ve felt after this Saturday’s edition of the LA Times.

“Column One” is the main feature story that appears each day in the Los Angeles Times. I remember when that story slot was given its formal name in 1989 or 1990, during a major redesign. Though a major feature story has always been on the front page for as long as many could remember, giving it a formal name added extra oomph. Veteran journalists aimed to have a “Column One.” When one of my coworkers — a stringer rather than actual vaunted “Times Staff Writer” miraculously landed her article in the spot, we all gave her a huge round of congratulations, not diminished by our envy and hope to have such positioning for our own stories.

Column Ones could take weeks to complete, such was the research that went into some of them. They were almost always a Big Deal. And this Saturday’s Big Deal? A feature on the woes of Wall Street Wives, having to make do with less but far more than most people earn: Wall Street wives had the richer, now they’re a bit poorer.

I don’t want to take away from anyone’s particular pain or suffering. However they feel it, whatever the cause, however absurd it might seem to a distant observer, it is no doubt real to them. My issue is more about why of all the stories that deserved the attention of a Column One, this is what the Times chose?

Understand that online, you don’t get the full impact of the story’s placement. This was on the front page of the paper, prime placement, the newspaper equivalent of yelling to readers, “THIS IS A BIG DEAL.” And what did we read?

In interviews with several Wall Street wives whose husbands’ big earnings are in jeopardy, they describe the pain of walking through malls and boutiques — how it hurts knowing they can’t grab a few things for themselves that might catch their fancy.

Seriously? It’s not a story on how they can’t afford to clothe their children. It’s about how they can’t just buy some excess stuff they really don’t need. This is a hardship that deserve such play?

The money quote, capturing plenty of attention over at Gawker, was:

“Growing up, my mom used to buy the scratchiest toilet paper, and when we complained she would say, “When you get your own job, you buy the expensive type,’ ” Fran says. “Well, we’re back to the scratchy stuff.”

To be fair, one of the women interviewed was about to undergo a mastectomy when her husband’s company Lehman declared bankruptcy, making her worry about insurance coverage (that seems to have continued on). Anyone can have sympathy over that. But most of the story is filled with anecdotes that made my eyes roll.

What possessed the Times to run this? Or if to run it, to put it out on Page 1? But also on Page 1 that same day, a legacy of something that has slowly killed the Times over the years also appeared. The first of a SEVEN part series about LAPD’s “Gangster Squad” of the 1950s.

Apparently hundreds of interviews were involved for the writer to produce the series — and tons of fact checking, we’re told. And while I want — so very much want — this type of journalism to survive — is this where the Times should have allowed a reporter to have spent so much of his time? A story about crime in the 1950s?

This is the subject for a book, not for the LA Times to spend some of its remaining few resources on. The LA Times no longer has an Orange County section to keep me informed of what’s going on in my local community, long ago folded into the “California” section which barely seems to cover the entire state. I know there are lots of reasons people have abandoned newspapers, but this type of poor story selection and assignment can’t help. I’m sure it’s an interesting and well researched series, but it’s not what I need from my local paper.

When I was at the Times, it was often referred to as the velvet coffin by some — a place where a select group of journalists, who had fought their way up to a “destination paper,” found themselves able to write as infrequently as they wanted, about whatever they wanted, a job set for life.

Those of us new to the Times had some degree of resentment about this. In Orange County, we were working our asses off. It wasn’t a kickback place — we had the Orange County Register breathing down our neck, and we were the underdog. Stories constantly needed to written at a breakneck deadline pace. Meanwhile, it all happened knowing that we were, as a bureau, often not deemed as good as the downtown LA office.

I remember once being downtown for a day on an assignment and being introduced to the famed LA Times editorial cartoonist Paul Conrad. This was a man whose work I’d admired for years. Introduced, and told I worked out of Orange County, his response was, “I’m sorry.”

My gut reaction was “F— you very much.” Seriously. One reason so much was going into Orange County was that the ad revenues were a ripe plum — money that helped the entire LA Times organization thrive, including Conrad sitting in his downtown velvet coffin.

As cutbacks have happened, and let’s be honest, a lot of dead wood has been shed, there’s the usual screaming that journalism has suffered. Some of this is no doubt true. I say again — I want the careful, lengthy research that makes for wonderful newspaper stories. But the time has long passed for a seven part series about something in the 1950s. And if you’re going to report on the economic crisis, find a better topic for good play than the sufferings of Wall Street Wives. Newspapers are fighting for their lives, and this Saturday’s edition reflected none of that reality to me.

Meanwhile, a few weeks ago, I actually tried to subscribe to the LA Times. You know, get the print edition delivered to me — add one more reader to the declining numbers. I remember getting a flyer saying I could get it at some absurdly inexpensive price, like $52 per year. It was a nobrainer.

Naturally, I couldn’t find the flyer. So, I decided to call without it. First challenge — what number to call. Hey, LA Times — if you want readers, put a box at the bottom of the front page with a “Call To Subscribe” number.

After much flipping of pages, I think I found a likely number buried in the masthead midway through the paper. I called. I got an automated announcement telling me that the lines were really busy, and would I want to try the automated system — and if so, push 1 or something. Um, I was in the automated system already! But I tried, and yep, I got right back into the same system. Crazy.

Eventually, after about 15 minutes on hold, I reached someone who immediately assumed I had a subscription problem. No, I explained I wanted the paper. I’d seen this flyer — did they still have that price? What was the code on the flyer, I was asked. Dunno — I don’t have it. Sorry, without the code, we can’t give you the price.

I tried again. Surely you have a list of all the current offers. Do you have this one? What’s the code, I was asked for again.

Sigh. Eventually, the person offered me some really high price for a Sunday-only subscription. Thanks, no thanks.

Meanwhile, the Wall Street Journal keeps sending me mailers promising me a print version every day for $99 plus online access. I’ve let my old online-only account expire, since you clearly don’t need it to read the Wall Street Journal online for free, as I’ve explained (and even better, the Google News cloaking of titles has ended). My old subscription was like $150 per year. This mailing is a great deal. I’ll probably do it.

And why not? It’s not like the LA Times is giving me anything special. If I want world and national news, the Wall Street Journal or the New York Times suffice as well if not better. The LA Times had me in the past by going beyond, by giving me a California and Orange County view. As for the Orange County Register — forget it. The few times I’ve picked it up recently, the ads have felt more interesting than the articles.

It’s sad. As a native Californian, I want my local papers — especially the LA Times — to be counted right alongside the “nationals” in stature. I could have never envisioned thinking the New York Times was something I wanted to regularly read all those years ago when I was last living here. An East Coast publication over my native paper? How things have changed.

Postscript: Coincidentally, after I wrote this, I came across news of the latest job cuts at the LA Times. Los Angeles Times: 75 More News Jobs Axed is a good rundown. The latest cuts (see the memo here) come after 250 people in the newsroom were fired last summer. The Tribune Co., which owns the Times, has about $13 billion in debt — and cutting staff seems to be their way forward out of that mess. The Tribune is also considering purchasing the Orange County Register and combining it with the LA Times.

I wish the news were better. I wish there were a magic wand that could solve the newspaper woes. I don’t know what the answer is. It’s probably not just slashing jobs and coverage to the degree that there’s not much left to the paper.

Postscript 2: The irony! After reviewing my post online, there’s a big AdSense unit next to it pitching subscriptions to the Times. I checked out the offer (yes, I did it in a way to not click on my own ad), liked the deal for Thurs-Sunday delivery and went for it. So we’ll see if my views change as I become a semi-regular reader again. Worst case, at least I’ve got the Fry’s ad to look forward to on Saturdays.