The Los Angeles Times is a prime example of a major American metro newspaper whose national and international news is trumped by news agencies and larger papers like the New York Times while its regional coverage remains inferior to local publications. Currently faced with huge losses in circulation coupled with pressure from shareholders, LAT is struggling to redefine itself in order to maintain its relevancy. A two-pronged approach is necessary: exploit local resources and diversity while overhauling the substandard website.
LAT’s recent announcement that it would launch an investigation into its own future has set the media blogosphere afire. The ambitiously named “Manhattan Project” has charged nine of the paper’s own reporters and editors with determining how to re-engage readers in these challenging times.
Although comparing the project to the United States’ efforts to create an A-bomb during WWII is overly superlative, there is some apocalyptic frenzy to the speculation that has erupted on blogs and in newspapers. Jeff Jarvis called the endless theorizing a “parlor game.” Perhaps a parlor game, but one with grave consequences for the newspaper industry.
One of the more dominant voices in this “parlor game” is that of former L.A. Times editor Michael Kinsley, who suggests that the paper join forces with its Tribune Company cohorts to form a national newspaper. “Call it the National Tribune,” he proposes. Kinsley thinks the new super-paper could fill the unoccupied spot between the New York Times and USA Today.
However, a National Tribune is a fairly remote notion, as most insiders believe the Times will be sold to a private investor in the near future. As Kinsley said in New York Magazine: “My prediction is that they’re going to sell it.”
At any rate, what could have been a precursor for a National Tribune has already been scrapped. Last year, the paper cancelled its national edition when it realized that the New York Times was still the national paper of record. What is more, if anyone outside of L.A. was reading the Times, they did so through the paper’s website. Said Kurt Andersen of New York Magazine: “For the educated, affluent part of its audience—who can now buy the New York Times at any Starbucks and get it free online—[LAT is] redundant in its national and international coverage.”
But instead of being defeated by the fact that they will never be #1, the L.A. Times should buck up and make the best of what they do have.
LOCAL RESOURCES & DIVERSITY
The Los Angeles area has some of the largest minority (soon to become majority) populations anywhere. The city is 48.9% Hispanic and Latino and 11.1% Asian. There is a considerable Mexican community, as well as a large Koreatown and a sizeable Armenian population. Added to all that is one of America’s wealthiest majority-black neighborhoods (Baldwin Hills), artistic communities such as Silver Lake and Los Feliz, and film-star meccas like Beverly Hills. Quite the gamut, wouldn’t you say?
How can this unparalleled mixture be a boon as opposed to a burden to the L.A.Times? The paper should begin to see this diversity as an opportunity, and move into niche markets. With such defined minority groups, the market is ripe for development.
Some might argue that niche publications were over-hyped at their outset, or that L.A. has enough Spanish-language papers (including Tribune holdings Hoy and La Opinión). Other regional papers in California have even closed their ethnic publications because of stiff competition from more ethnicity-focused, private papers. But LAT could become a respected umbrella-brand for a range of niche publications; the concept of a unified group of ethnic papers has yet to be tested in the L.A. area, and it could prove to be a successful way to provide diverse offerings to the community with a credible brand name.
The L.A. Times must spend the time and money necessary to fully serve the Los Angeles community, both by providing local content and chronicling the industry that makes the town unique: entertainment. Hollywood should be covered in the same way as The Washington Post covers government. According to Kurt Andersen: “The L.A. Times should treat the entertainment industry as its equivalent to the government—own that story, flood that zone—but also cover the whole Los Angeles basin as the Post reports on the District and Virginia and Maryland, with depth and vigor.”
There is a joke that everyone in Los Angeles works in “the business.” Although somewhat of an exaggeration, there is some truth to the fact that the movie business is tangible in all aspects of L.A. life. Variety covers the deals, but there is certainly room for investigative reporting behind the velvet ropes, as Mack Reed of the L.A. Voice suggests.
If the L.A.Times becomes the go-to paper for the entertainment world, it could possibly produce supplements for other papers nationwide. Or potentially bring back the national-edition model, on a limited entertainment-only scale.
As Michael Kinsley said: “Los Angeles is the capital of the increasingly dominant infotainment-media-celebrity complex. Broaden your scope to California generally and you can throw in high technology as well. The L.A. Times should be the diary of this capital. Often it is. But it has to display its savvy as well as rely on it. In 2006, that means having a website second-to-none, technologically and in terms of content.” Precisely.
In addition to enriching its commitment to Los Angeles, the L.A. Times must improve its website and make this L.A.-centric information a worldwide commodity. As the international authority on one of the world’s most relevant cities, LATimes.com needs to be the West Coast equivalent of washingtonpost.com.
The Beltway Broadsheet produces two Web versions: one for its surrounding areas and one for the international crowd curious about the inner workings of the Capitol. LAT should take a similar route, thoroughly covering Southern California for its community and Hollywood studios for the world.
Furthermore, the general consensus is that the L.A.Times’ website is woefully sub-standard, and embarrassingly lagging where multimedia is concerned. One main priority is to develop video offerings. There is some major irony in the fact that the online paper of the world’s entertainment capital is sorely lacking in video. Take advantage of L.A.’s human resources and produce some original video content! Certainly the L.A. Times can do better than the New York Times’ bespectacled A.O.Scott droning on about recent movies.
BRINGING L.A. INTO THE FUTURE
In conclusion, if the Manhattan Project is to succeed, it should rethink its composition. Are three investigative reporters and six editors really the right people to attack the issue at hand? Wouldn’t a web developer or multimedia expert be helpful? Kevin Roderick at L.A. Observed wondered: “Could there really be no women on the team? Nobody with a deep sense of L.A.'s diversity? No apparent focus on better serving Los Angeles?”
The challenge for all papers is to remain focused on their core competences even as websites democratize distribution. The Washington Post nails politics in the nation’s capital, the New York Times corners features, criticism, and investigative reporting, and the New York Post is gossip central.
The Manhattan Project should focus on cornering L.A.’s singularity: its diversity and unique entertainment world. The task at hand is to better serve Los Angeles residents while still bringing the paper into the geography-less Internet age. Challenging? You bet. Doable? We’ll see.