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

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.

 

Comments () | Archives (19)

The comments to this entry are closed.

Gary StClair

To be local, LAT needs to cover more than the Westside, along with the occasional valley or beach (not Malibu) story. The metro area is among the largest in the country, but LAT reads as if the Westside, WeHO, BH, Brentwood, and Santa Monica are all there is. Furthermore, catering to the Westside has reduced the Eastside as meaning anything between Fairfax and downtown.

On the other hand, LAT should keep up its national coverage, or we'll reduced to reading something like "The Oregonian" up in Porland. Yes, I want the best of both worlds, and LAT can produce it if management (Tribune and the Chandlers) would stop being so greedy. How many other businesses can boast a 20% profit margin?

The writers and editors should stop worrying about downtown's renovation (Broad's big ego) and get out into the surroung 'burbs - the two valleys and the South Bath. Quit referring to everything south of downtown as either adjacent to Staples Center, USC, or "South LA or South Central." It's a huge city and your local coverage is centered around two locales. The writers and editors should start covering the areas they live in, or maybe that is what they are already doing.

Kate Coe

Thanks for linkage, but why leave out the best part? Curley's now working for the WashingtonPost.Newsweek group as a vp of product development. (The "little papers" was linked to the Washington Post.)
FBLA = NAMBLA? Alphabet a problem?

Matt Welch

Listen, Coe, if you insist on cramming your posts will all those pesky links (not to mention various bolds and italics) that equals extra work for the excerpter, and sometimes a man just wants to go home for the night.

And yes, people should click on the links & read the whole thing....

Howard Owens

The LAT has a very smart guy in Rob Barrett running LATimes.com now. He knows what needs to be done.

You don't need Rob Curley. You just need to let the people hired to be creative and innovative do their jobs.

I'd like to see the suit just give Rob the resources he needs (sorry, but rebuilding a media company isn't cheap, especially one the size of the LAT), and get out of the way and let him do his job.

It's really very simple.

Cathy Seipp

I do sort of wish they'd credit me for coming up with that old Spring Street moniker. No one -- but no one! -- ever used Spring Street to refer to the L.A. Times until I began that monthly column for the old Buzz magazine.

The reason was I was trying to figure out a name that was just ridiculous and see if it would take. And indeed it was ridiculous: Spring Street isn't even the official address, but a reminder that Times Mirror Square (as it then was) is located on Skid Row, aka Spring Street.

To see Spring Street repeated over and over and over now as a reference in a single column, like Nikki Finke did in her L.A. Weekly rampage the other week about the Times, is slightly grating because the joke's not exactly as fresh as it was when I began it in 1992. And any joke gets stale if you hammer the reader over the head with it too much. One or two Spring Streets per column is enough.

I had certain Homeric stylistic rules in that old Buzz column, by the way. The L.A. Times was almost always, on second reference, called my favorite newspaper. Spring Street could be used on first reference. Shelby Coffee III was always called on second reference SC3 or Shelby, never Coffee. Etc.

Pat

I agree with everything Cathy, Kate and Howard said.
1) Let the dotcom people implement their ideas.
2) Improve the features section.
3) Look into the local journalism sites Rob Curley did. I looked at that Florida site yesterday after Kate linked to him, and it's incredibly clean and easy to navigate. You can find almost everything you would need on the very front page of the site, without clicking through a zillion ads and useless graphics.
4) So, yes, the Times needs more local coverage as well as keeping good national and international coverage. What kind? I don't know, everything from a digest of what was done at the neighborhood council meetings to looking at what micro issues are preoccupying certain neighborhoods to features on unique programs in local schools.
5) Don't know what you mean by what local establishment do writers patronize -- more Philippe's, less Tommy's? More Pantry, less Yang Chow? Clarify please.

Matt Welch

Pat -- As per your 5, I mean it precisely like that. (More Malo, less Stella! etc.) Not the most serious of questions; more of a symbolic exercise that will, in a perfect world, tip me to some bar or restaurant I should sample.

Tim McGarry

Frankly, I think the Times could do a much better job locally. In particular, I would like to see more and better coverage of goverment at all levels. Go deeper -- take me behind the scenes; do more investigative reporting. City Council, the Supes -- yes, but also key private sector players, influential individuals, etc. And more on what Sacto and D.C. agencies are doing here. I know you're missing stuff -- stuff you'd be less likely to miss if you put more resources into local and more aimed at the points of intersection among federal, state and local.

The example has probably been beaten to death, but the resources devoted to Nevada judges should have been devoted to L.A. stories.

It's not that the paper doesn't do excellent local stories. It's that we need more of them.

More King/Drew-type investigative work. More Anschutz-type profiles. More Steve Lopez-style life on the street stories.

Ken Reich's departure left a big gap in seismology-related coverage. The same is true with respect to Nancy Cleeland's departure from the labor beat. These are beats that have very high local significance, they are topics that you don't want to leave in a vacuum.

In hindsight, the drastic cuts in the regional bureaus -- OC, the Valley, Ventura -- seem terribly mistaken. Given the LAT's reduced regional firepower, some of the communications projects I've been involved in the past would be a lot easier to manage today, and that's not something a good journalist wants to hear a PR person say.

Larry Kaplan

In general, I think the mix is just about right, but as I said before, there is much more to what most people consider LA---in essence the County---than those neighborhoods within the LA City limits. So, as the other comment said, go beyond downtown and the west side and beef that coverage up.

Tom Grey

Here's what I would do with the LAT (from Jeff Jarvis):

Hire at least one explicitly pro-Bush registered Republican as an editor, one who:
a) supports the Iraq war (with criticisms) and
b) supports the tax cuts (Dow record high! among best growth in G-8)
c) is pro-life.

Such a person should have the power to ask for substantiation of reporter’s reports, i.e. facts. And point out the anti-Bush bias/ spin on every front page article.
That would be his job.

Printing the Lancet study AND some criticisms of it, like the mismatch with death certificates.
Asking, for instance, how many clusters in the cluster sampling?
What is the usual number of clusters per 1000? Where, exactly, were these clusters?

Most biased stories are biased by the facts that exist which are NOT reported; because the questions aren't asked (because of the bias).

The LAT needs more honesty in its bias on the national/ international stories.

Was George Clooney asked if he would support WAR to stop genocide in Darfur?
How many American deaths would be acceptable?

Mat Gleason

The thing about the TIMES stories that makes me puke is that they bend over backwards to show both sides. There is always a qualifying line after a headine: Cure for Cancer Debuts - Critics Warn Economy Could Suffer.

Just be bold and biased.

Also, please note that So Cal is about 60 percent Latino - while unctious suburban WASPY democrat values poison the perspective of 90% of the TIMES' feature articles. Coverage of Latinos in the TIMES is hardly removed from Amos-N-Andy with Sombreros.

Larry Kaplan

This guy makes a lot of sense:

http://nymag.com/news/imperialcity/23173/index.html

Tom McCarthy

Regarding the future goal of the Los Angeles Times:

If your goal is to be a local newspaper, then you should concentrate on Los Angeles and Hollywood as some have suggested. This should enable you to drastically reduce costs, including the cost of paper on which the paper is printed (as the number of readers decreases, the cost of printing and publishing will decrease.)

If your goal is to be a great newspaper, then you need to provide news on an international and national level in addition to local news. As a matter of fact, I happen to believe (as a suburbanite) that the Los Angeles Times spends too much effort on local news.

On the international scene, you could start with coverage of President Bush's fallacious "Global War On Terror." At some point, someone will have the courage to print the truth, i.e., that this political debacle is a tragedy sapping the strength of the United States while sowing hatred across a great part of the world's population.

One might look into the facts behind the United Nations. I suspect that if one investigated it could be shown that the truth is that the UN (like most of the countries of the world) is afraid to openly challenge the United States in any way. If President Bush was the humanitarian, libertarian that he pretends to be he could hardly ignore the tragedy of Darfur. The UN is powerless because the United States not only fails to lead, but effectively prevents intervention.

At a national level, how can anyone accept the Administration's statements that the tax cuts have been beneficial and that the economy is in great shape? Come on, let's look at the facts. The Dow Jones Average is only a measure of how much money the wealthy have invested in the market. It's like feeding a "progressive" slot machine in Las Vegas; The prize total grows as more money is invested, but it is still a gamble as to who is going to collect in the end.

The President says that the deficit is reduced! Wonderful, instead of borrowing a trillion dollars we only borrowed half a trillion!

What about jobs going overseas? We just passsed 300,000,000 in population and the number of people looking for work is growing, while the number of jobs is declining. Who is going to purchase all of these foreign made products when there is no longer anyone working in the United States because they are all produced overseas?

The polls show that the people of the United States are at an all time low in their estimation of how well our government serves us. Simultaneously, the two major political parties (and California is a great example) simply do everything in their power to maintain their own positions of power. The Republican Part has actually been so grossly inept that they are in danger of suffering a loss of power and prestige, but the net result will simply be to turn it over to the Democrats who are just as bad!

Why doesn't the Los Angeles Times take on the role of a great newspaper and publish news on such items of great interest to millions of people?

Stop worrying about the Internet. It is a great communications device, but it will never take the place of a newspaper that one can sit down and read as one reads a textbook; not just to scan a story, but to search out and identify the truth.

Good luck and God bless America!

Charles Hornberger

Crime. Blotters.

Anonymous me

I read through the critique given by Kurt Anderson. I think a lot of people here are loathe to admit that by and large L.A. is middle class (or if they're not, they're trying to deny they ascended from those roots). So is NY (and all of Anderson's friends who read the NY Times), but the voice reporting all their nicely dressed up middle class meanderings isn't. You know that when you pick up the NY Times that there's a voice of authority, even if you might not agree with it and often it slides into true snarkism. And that's where I'm going to cut right into.

I think the LA Times lacks a unique voice. The little manifesto printed out in the Op/Ed section on Monday was the funniest thing I've read. It talks about "our Western roots," but the voice that came across sounded more like ...a very idealized midwesterner extoling the virtues of Western roots (hint: read Stegner).

So that's the first challenge. What's the voice? I really can't tell. I'm not saying to print things in surfer lingo, screenwriter biz, or any other L.A. dialect. But I do think we need a strong presence, a captain of the ship.

As for local. The one thing TV doesn't cover is local politics. We need that. But not in the partisan way it's been doing. We want them to use the journalists prod, finding the story, whether or not it's liberal or conservative and drilling for some truth that'll clarify to everyone why we should care. Ignoring the other 94% of the bad writing in OC and LA Weekly, the local political writers are having fun, it's what makes reading it so appealing. I might not agree with their predictable POV, but they've found a style that clicks, even if it pisses you off.

Howard Veit

Matt, while I respect you and believe you are being straight, the below post refers to a totally slanted and misleading article appearing today, 10/27. I will make no further comment:

Muslims not causing riots in Paris, and you know it's true because that's what the LA Times is telling us. For a perfect example of propaganda, agenda journalism, and complete distortion of the facts, this is the penultimate (I don't know what that word means but what the hey, I saw it on a porn site). Here are the euphamisms for Muslim punks in one Times article; in the order that they appear: teens, angry and impoverished youths, teenagers, disaffected youths, hoodlums (maybe they are running out of nicey nice),impoverished youths (again), Young men, the young men were armed their faces partially masked (now we're getting close to religious intolerance. Can Burka clad hooligans be next?),youths, 15 youths , a 17-year-old, French-born children of immigrants from northern and sub-Saharan Africa, most of them Muslim (Muslim, isn't that just precious?)

FYI it took 16 paragraphs for the LA Times to mention the "M" word. The article continues for 25 or more paragraphs never using the term Muslim again. Wanna read it? It's here.

# posted by Howard : 10/27/2006 06:07:00 AM

Mike Havnaer

I was conducting a conversation with my own navel, and the subject of the LA Times came up. I concluded that the biggest threat to newpapers is this format I'm writing on now - the Internet (it actually ends up being big threat to journalism and democracy, too, but that's a different thread).

Why would anyone pay to subscribe to a print newspaper when they can read the whole thing on-line for free?

Yes, yes, oldsters like me like the idea of leisurely sitting in the living room with our coffee and leafing through the pages, but there is a new, nearly as pleasant custom of hopping on-line with our laptops and our coffee and clicking through the same articles. And with Broadband, we can take our laptops to the park and read the Times.

Most businesses, faced with a leak in their revenue stream like this, simply plug the leak and charge for the on-line service. Unfortunately, newspapers can't. They're faced with a dilemma. If they charge readers for on-line access, no one will subscribe, since there's so many free alternatives. Without a Web footprint, the newspaper dissolves into obscurity, and people stop subscribing to the print edition.

Navel and I mulled this "damned if you do, damned if you don't" conundrum over and ran through the alternatives -
Pay print/pay Net = sell neither
Pay print/free Net = sell Net, print dies
Free print/Pay Net = Net dies, print dries up
Free print/free Net = ???

That last option was the most difficult to answer. If both formats are given away free, everybody will read. But your revenue stream takes a pretty big hit. But subscriptions are no longer the only source of income for a newspaper. So I did a thumbnail calculation based on the LAT circulation figures and about a 20-cent per paper price. My SWAG came up with a generous estimate of $100M/yr in income. That's pretty big, but how big is it in comparison to the Times' overall revenue stream? How big is that compared to advertising revenue? We guessed it was substantial, but not comparable - maybe 15% of the ad revenue. Since about a quarter of Angelenos subscribe to the LAT now, how much would advertisers pay to tap into the remaining 70% ? Maybe enough to make back the shortfall caused by giving away the paper free?

Navel and I dubbed our plan the "Pennysaver model" (based on the weekly classified ad publication), distributed action items for more research, and adjourned our meeting (Why do I always get all the action items?).

Ad vs. subscription revenue for the LA Times wasn't an easy thing to look up. The best I could do in a 10-minute Yahoo! search was a 10Q for the Tribune Corporation (Very enlightening data in context of the Trib/Chandler debacle, but that's a different thread). Newspaper balances are broken out separately from Television/Radio balances, and overall revenue for the quarter was about $1.2B. SWAG-ing again, that's about 4.8B revenue per year. OTOH, Tribune Corp owns several newspapers. How to break out the LA Times? I Googled circulation figures. LA Times has the 4th-largest circulation of all newpapers in the USA. The Chicago Tribune is 6th. Scrolling down the list of the 200 largest papers in the country and picking out the Tribune papers, I estimate the LA Times conservatively accounts for about 15% of the total newspaper revenue. Another SWAG makes that $720M annual revenue for the LA Times. What percentage is my earlier $100M subscription estimate? 13.9%

Based on this, how much would the Times have to increase its advertising rates to compensate for the lost subscription revenue? 17%

That's a big bump, but could you sell it if your circulation tripled?

So here's the plan - publish the same world-class paper you do today. Deliver it FREE to everyone in a set of Southern California Zip Codes who send in their vital stats (Name, address, phone, web address). Web access has the SAME free delivery policy, except electronic delivery is international (note that you're actually RESTRICTING access somewhat - readers have to subscribe to access). National and International print editions still cost the same price as today.
Bump advertising charges up by 5% immediately, with 3% annual increases for the next five years to cover the cost.

Its the best I could come up with on short notice.

Joe

The LA Times is doomed. It is the equivalent of a horse and buggy, just after the Ford company churned out it first million Model T's, and it will probably not even realize that until after it has been shut down. There are two main reasons this will happen.
First, LA is mainly populated with uneducated peasants from tiny Mexican villages, and this will only increase many fold as the years go by. To these folks, the stories covered in the LA Times may as well be about rabbits on the moon, and they may as well be written in Sanskrit.
The second reason is that the relatively few Anglos in LA, even though many are liberal, have become tired of the LA Times' ironclad policy of continuous lies and distortions, in homage to liberalism and mindless political correctness. The LA Times, like so many other major U.S. newspapers, has utterly squandered any remaining credibility it once had. There is simply no reason for anybody to pay to read an endless (and insulting) series of lies, half-truths, and distortions.

Mike Havnaer

Do I detect a note af xenophobic racism there, Joe? You DO realize that one of those "uneducated peasants" is now our Mayor, right?

The Times may go the way of the way of the horse and buggy, but I worry about what will replace it. Right now, the odds-on favorite is web-based journalistic composites like the Drudge Report. But even they will have to find sources to steal their stories from. When traditional print journalism dies, what's left will be advertising posing as news, corporate press releases, and government reports (the content of which will be edited and controlled by whatever Administration is in power). It will allow the new journals to report only the good news that make us feel good, and eliminate all those bad stories that make us so angry.

Traditional Journalism will be available, just not in the U.S.

Brave New World, eh?

I don't think anyone will be too upset if you stop reading the LA Times on-line and switch to the Lincoln Journal-Star, The Birmingham Times, or The Bababoo News-Republic...


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