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"Manhattan Project" Shelved! "Spring Street Project" Rises From Ashes!

October 20, 2006 |  9:30 pm

We continue to break crucial news for you here at Opinion L.A. about the L.A. Times' ongoing super-duper research project to figure out how to keep readers from burning their subscription cards, and how to transform a 940-employee newsroom into the New New Journalism-Company Thing. (For background, and very lively reader commentary, please consult Parts One, Two and Three.)

Today's shocker? "The Manhattan Project" has been vaporized as a name. The two-month quest will heretofore be known as "The Spring Street Project," in honor of the street bordering the Times that's closest to skid row, and which has become a shorthand of sorts for outsiders to refer to the House That Chandlers Built. Details of the nomenclature process were obscure as of press time, but we have it on excellent authority that "The Manhattan Beach Project" was popular among some participants, and that no one besides your humble narrator was agitating too loudly for "The Manhappenin' Beach Project." The latter is, of course, a tragedy.

At any rate, I can also confirm that the powers that be are looking closely at all your suggestions and critiques, so to keep those juices flowing, here are three more questions for the peanut gallery:

1) Is the paper too local, not local enough, or just right?
2) What tangible aspect of localness would you like to see? (A sector or community or government agency that isn't currently covered, a noted local writer that isn't currently hired, a news-you-can-use feature that would be helpful, etc.)
3) What local establishment should the writers and editors patronize more? Which one should they stop going to, at least for a decent interval?

Keep those answers coming! In the meantime, here's some more commentary about the inner workings of Spring Street:

FisbowlLA's Kate Coe continues her flurry of helpful suggestions:

If the Manhattan Project really wants to reconnect with Southern California, they might take a look at the work Rob Curley is doing, instead of sending out lame emails. Fast Company has a piece by Chuck Salter about the self-described "internet punk" whose hyper-local, multimedia websites have revitalized local papers. [...]

The LA Times must think that all this new media with its bells and whistles is fine for those little papers, but unseemly for an organ of such stature and dignity.

FBLA thinks that's what's at the core of the Times' troubles: it's just too good for its readers.

"FBLA" means "FishBowl L.A.," and not some kind of unseemly "Love Association," btw. Meanwhile, over at L.A. CityBeat, Mick Farren strokes the figurative goatee:

Why can't a city with a population in excess of four million support a quality broadsheet?

The blame falls most heavily on the Chicago-based Tribune Company, which, since its purchase of the Times in 2000, has relentlessly cut costs and conducted serial purges of editorial staff. Rumor claims Tribune will not be happy until it sees the paper yield something approaching an 18 percent return on its investment, which – in this era of dizzy communications flux – is nothing short of absurd. Equally absurd is Tribune's notion of a miracle formula that will entice under-30s to read hard-copy newspapers, and raise the Times' circulation back above the million mark.

The two words that spring to mind are "get real." The young demographic won't suddenly start reading newspapers, especially in a city with minimal mass transit

Longtime LAT needler (and occasional contributor to the Op-Ed page) Catherine "Cathy" Seipp gives some advice:

I suspect journalists are far more impressed by Pulitzers than readers, who tend to remember (and subscribe to a paper because of) an old-fashioned "Hey, Martha!" human interest story than the kind of worthy prize-grabbing thing that wins accolades from peers.

A basic problem at the Times, for instance, is the continuing weakness of the features section - home of the funnies and advice columns and so traditionally looked down on by the rest of the paper. But this is the section where kids first develop a daily paper reading habit, and I don't think you need a team of investigative reporters to learn that tolerating weak feature writing and editing in features is the surest way to alienate young readers for life.

Nor do you need to arrange a series of Deep Throat-style meetings in underground parking garages to realize that many Times staff writers turn in very little copy - Spring Street considers once a week reasonably productive - which means they're paid around $2,000 per mediocre, grudging piece. Wouldn't it be better to spend that money instead on freelancers, who, if they can't work themselves up into something worth reading, don't get paid?

Let the heads roll, I say.

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