Los Angeles Times in the 21st century
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The Los Angeles Times in the 21st century was beset in its first decade by a change in ownership, a bankruptcy, a rapid succession of editors, reductions in staff, decreases in paid circulation, the need to increase its Web presence, and a series of controversies.
In 2000, the Times-Mirror Company, publisher of the Times, was purchased by the Tribune Company of Chicago, Illinois, ending one of the final examples of a family-controlled metropolitan daily newspaper in the United States. (The New York Times, The Seattle Times and others remain.)
On April 2, 2007, the Tribune Company announced its acceptance of real estate entrepreneur Sam Zell's offer to buy the Chicago Tribune, the Los Angeles Times, and all other company assets. Zell announced that he would sell the Chicago Cubs baseball club. He put up for sale the company's 25 percent interest in Comcast SportsNet Chicago. Until shareholder approval was received, Los Angeles billionaires Ron Burkle and Eli Broad had the right to submit a higher bid, in which case Zell would have received a $25 million buyout fee.
In December 2008, the Tribune Company filed for bankruptcy protection. The bankruptcy was a result of declining advertising revenue and a debt load of $12.9 billion, much of it incurred when the paper was taken private by Zell.
Editorial changes and staff reductions
John Carroll, former editor of the Baltimore Sun, was brought in to restore the luster of the newspaper. During his reign at the Times he eliminated more than 200 jobs, but despite an operating profit margin of 20 percent, the Tribune executives were unsatisfied with returns, and by 2005 Carroll had left the newspaper. His successor, Dean Baquet, refused to impose the additional cutbacks mandated by the Tribune Company.
Baquet was the first African-American to hold this type of editorial position at a top-tier daily. During Baquet and Carroll's time at the paper, it won 13 Pulitzer Prizes, more than any other paper but the New York Times. However, Baquet was removed from the editorship for not meeting the demands of the Tribune Group — as was publisher Jeffrey Johnson — and was replaced by James O'Shea of the Chicago Tribune. O'Shea himself left in January 2008 after a budget dispute with publisher David Hiller.
The paper's content and design style was overhauled several times in attempts to increase circulation. In 2000, a major change re-organized the news sections (related news was put closer together) and changed the "Local" section to the "California" section with more extensive coverage. Another major change in 2005 saw the Sunday "Opinion" section retitled the Sunday "Current" section, with a radical change in its presentation and featured columnists. There were regular cross-promotions with Tribune-owned television station KTLA to bring evening-news viewers into the Times fold.
The paper reported on July 3, 2008, that it planned to cut 250 jobs by Labor day and reduce the number of published pages by 15 percent. That included about 17 percent of the news staff, as part of the newly private media company's mandate to reduce costs. "We've tried to get ahead of all the change that's occurring in the business and get to an organization and size that will be sustainable," Hiller said.
The changes and cuts were controversial, prompting criticism from such disparate sources as a Jewish Journal commentary, an anonymously written employee blog called Tell Zell and a satirical Web site, Not the L.A. Times.
In January 2009, the Times increased its single copy price from 50 to 75 cents and eliminated the separate California/Metro section, folding it into the front section of the newspaper. The Times also announced seventy job cuts in news and editorial, or a 10 percent cut in payroll.
Some attributed the drop in circulation to the increasing availability of alternate methods of obtaining news, such as the Internet, cable TV and radio. Others believed that the drop was due to the retirement of circulation director Bert Tiffany. Still others thought the decline was a side effect of a succession of short-lived editors who were appointed by publisher Mark Willes after publisher Otis Chandler relinquished day-to-day control in 1995. Willes, the former president of General Mills, was criticized for his lack of understanding of the newspaper business, and was derisively referred to by reporters and editors as The Cereal Killer.
Other reasons offered for the circulation drop included an increase in the single-copy price from 25 cents to 50 cents and a rise in the proportion of readers preferring to read the online version instead of the print version. Editor Jim O'Shea, in an internal memo announcing a May 2007, mostly voluntary, reduction in force, characterized the decrease in circulation as an "industry-wide problem" which the paper had to counter by "growing rapidly on-line," "break[ing] news on the Web and explain[ing] and analyz[ing] it in our newspaper."
2004 Pulitzer Prize-winner Nancy Cleeland, who took O'Shea's buyout offer, did so because of "frustration with the paper's coverage of working people and organized labor" (the beat that earned her Pulitzer). She speculated that the paper's revenue shortfall could be reversed by expanding coverage of economic justice topics, which she believed were increasingly relevant to Southern California; she cited the paper's attempted hiring of a "celebrity justice reporter" as an example of the wrong approach.
In early 2006, the Times closed its San Fernando Valley printing plant, leaving press operations to the Olympic plant and to Orange County. Also in 2006, the Times announced its circulation had fallen to 851,532, down 5.4 percent from 2005. The Times's loss of circulation was the largest of the top ten newspapers in the U.S.
Despite the circulation decline, many in the media industry lauded the newspaper's effort to decrease its reliance on "other-paid" circulation in favor of building its "individually paid" circulation base — which showed a marginal increase in a circulation audit. This distinction reflected the difference between, for example, copies distributed to hotel guests free of charge (other-paid) versus subscriptions and single-copy sales (individually paid).
Internet presence and free weeklies
In December 2006, a team of Times reporters delivered management with a critique of the paper's online news efforts known as the Spring Street Project. The report, which condemned the Times as a "web-stupid" organization," was followed by a shakeup in management of the paper's website, www.latimes.com, and a rebuke of print staffers who had assertedly "treated change as a threat."
On July 10, 2007, Times launched a local Metromix site targeting live entertainment for young adults. A free weekly tabloid print edition of Metromix Los Angeles followed in February, 2008; the publication was the Times' first stand-alone print weekly. In 2009, the Times shut down Metromix and replaced it with Brand X, a blog site and free weekly tabloid targeting young, social networking readers. Brand X launched in March 2009; the Brand X tabloid ceased publication in June 2011 and the website was shut down the following month.
It was revealed in 1999 that a revenue-sharing arrangement was in place between the Times and Staples Center in the preparation of a 168-page magazine about the opening of the sports arena. The magazine's editors and writers were not informed of the agreement, which breached the Chinese wall that traditionally has separated advertising from journalistic functions at American newspapers. Publisher Mark Willes also had not prevented advertisers from pressuring reporters in other sections of the newspaper to write stories favorable to their point of view.
Michael Kinsley was hired as the Opinion and Editorial (Op-Ed) Editor in April 2004 to help improve the quality of the opinion pieces. His role was controversial, as he forced writers to take a more decisive stance on issues. In 2005, he created a Wikitorial, the first Wiki by a major news organization. Although it failed, readers could combine forces to produce their own editorial pieces. He resigned later that year.
On November 12, 2005, new Op-Ed Editor Andrés Martinez shook things up by announcing the firing of liberal op-ed columnist Robert Scheer and conservative editorial cartoonist Michael Ramirez, replacing the two with a more diversified lineup of regular columnists.
The Times has also come under controversy for its decision to drop the weekday edition of the Garfield comic strip in 2005, in favor of a hipper comic strip Brevity, while retaining the Sunday edition. Garfield was dropped altogether shortly thereafter.
Following the Republican Party's defeat in the 2006 mid-term elections, an Opinion piece published on November 19, 2006, by Joshua Muravchik, a leading neoconservative and a resident scholar at the conservative American Enterprise Institute, was titled BOMB IRAN. The article shocked some readers, with its hawkish comments in support of more unilateral action by the United States, this time against Iran.
On March 22, 2007, editorial page editor Andrés Martinez resigned following an alleged scandal centering around his girlfriend's professional relationship with a Hollywood producer who had been asked to guest edit a section in the newspaper. In an open letter written upon leaving the paper, Martinez criticized the publication for allowing the Chinese Wall between the news and editorial departments to be weakened, accusing news staffers of lobbying the opinion desk.
The Times drew fire for a last-minute story before the 2003 California recall election alleging that gubernatorial candidate Arnold Schwarzenegger groped scores of women during his movie career. Columnist Jill Stewart wrote on the American Reporter website that the Times did not do a story on allegations that former Governor Gray Davis had verbally and physically abused women in his office and that the Schwarzenegger story relied on a number of anonymous sources. Further, she said, four of the six alleged victims were not named. She also said that in the case of the Davis allegations, the Times decided against printing the Davis story because of its reliance on anonymous sources.   The American Society of Newspaper Editors said that the Times lost more than 10,000 subscribers because of the negative publicity surrounding the Schwarzenegger article.
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