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God Save the LA Times

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On Tuesday night, Zócalo sponsored another in its series of panel discussions, this one titled “Can the LA Times Be Saved?” The discussion was moderated by Kit Rachlis, editor of Los Angeles Magazine. Panelists were Times Editor Jim O’Shea, Managing Editor Leo Wolinsky, General Manager Dave Murphy and Executive Editor of LATimes.com Meredith Artley.

There were two related but very different issues at hand: one being the widespread problem of the declining circulation and revenues of print newspapers in general, the other being the more specific issues plaguing the Times and its perceived decline in quality. Then, of course, there is the point where the two issues converge: how the Times is managing (or mismanaging) the changing media landscape.

Rachlis opened up the discussion by reciting a litany of common complaints made about our local paper: it’s too liberal, the website sucks, it reads like it’s run from Chicago, and of course bafflement over the recent buyouts of a slew of contributors, most notably the much-loved, longtime columnist Al Martinez. He summed it up, “Circulation drops and that affects advertising revenue, advertising revenue leads to staff cutbacks, staff cutbacks affect quality, quality then affects circulation. How does that description not sound like a death spiral?”

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Throughout the discussion, O'Shea downplayed criticism and conveyed an optimistic faith in the city's support, saying, "I've been struck about how passionate people are about the Los Angeles Times" and "I don't think the situation we face is as dire as you say it is." In response to Rachlis' "death spiral" scenario, he responded, "An impossible situation is a mad teenager; a newspaper with a business problem, that's eminently solvable."

When Rachlis asked about the buyouts - which included several Pulitzer Prize winners - and how that improved the quality of the paper, O'Shea responded, "I don't really think you can equate the number of people to the quality of the paper. ... No one can tell me that when we had 1200 people, we were a 40 percent better paper."
Um ... not really the point. It isn't the quantity of people, but the quality of the people. O'Shea pointed out that "dozens" of Pulitzer winners still remain. That's great, but that doesn't make them Al Martinez. Writers like Robert Scheer and Martinez are not replaceable, and award-winning writers are not simply interchangeable. O'Shea somewhat acknowledged that later saying about Martinez, "We obviously did not handle it well. ... We met for lunch, we're discussing a possible future relationship. It's like anything else: if you screw up, you admit, you try to correct the problem and you move on."

Murphy followed with a speech about how much media is changing today and how newspapers must change, an observation so stale it came off fairly condescending. Yeah, Dave, we know media is changing, that's why we're here at this panel discussion. Oh, and most of us have been alive for the last 15 years too. And frankly, I think Al Martinez should be regarded as more than just a casualty of "change."

Speaking of change, Artley's outlook for LATimes.com stressed user-generated content as the future direction of the site. "We have to open up the conversation to the readers," she said to gasps of shock and surprise (no, just kidding). Artley, who was previously digital development director at the International Herald Tribune, was hired in February.

O'Shea, who manages to maintain convincing faith in his newspaper even through its soap opera struggles and the thanklessness of his position, ended the discussion with a mini rant about the essence of true journalism. "Journalism is putting things in the paper that you may not necessarily want, but you need to know. That's what journalism is ... and that's what we are going to continue to do."

photo by Dumbergirl via Flickr