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A tough place for The Times

November 11, 2006|TIM RUTTEN

THE late John Kenneth Galbraith once quipped that the art of politics "consists in choosing between the disastrous and the unpalatable."

These days, it often seems like a fairly apt description of the Los Angeles Times' increasingly uncertain future.

This week, the paper's new publisher, David D. Hiller, asked Editor Dean Baquet to resign because they were unable to agree on The Times' future direction and on the Tribune Co.'s demands that costs be cut by further reducing the staff. Hiller is the third publisher installed since Tribune acquired the paper as part of its purchase of the Times Mirror Co. James O'Shea, former managing editor of the Chicago Tribune -- who will take Baquet's place Monday -- will be the fourth editor in six years.

Meanwhile, Tribune itself is up for sale and this week two Los Angeles financiers, Eli Broad and Ron Burkle, submitted bids to buy the whole company and restore the Los Angeles Times to local ownership. Entertainment entrepreneur David Geffen also remains interested in submitting a bid for The Times alone, something Tribune now says it also is willing to entertain.

It's all become a bit of a soap opera, and, in a remark that Friday's Wall Street Journal turned into a Page 1 headline, Baquet described the relationship between Tribune and The Times as "a tragic, bad marriage." So, in that spirit, let's ask the soap opera-ish question: Can this marriage be saved?

Earlier this week, Hiller sent The Times' staff a thoughtful appraisal of the paper's situation and of the steps that need to be taken to ensure that it go on fulfilling its responsibilities to its readers and meeting its financial obligations to Tribune's stockholders. The key initiatives he identified centered on reinvigorating local and regional coverage, reaching out to Latino readers, young people and young families. "Our strategy," he wrote, "is building audience in L.A. and Southern California, and being authentic and indispensable in the eyes of people here, not on the East Coast and not in Chicago. This does not say turn away from foreign and national coverage, but it would suggest focus on issues and regions of special relevance here -- like our role as a gateway to the Pacific and our leading coverage of the entertainment industry."

Those are inarguable goals. And, if pursuing them under the direction of a publisher and an editor, neither of whom ever has lived or worked in Los Angeles, would seem to increase the degree of difficulty ... well, bigger obstacles have been overcome.

How these things play themselves out in the months ahead will depend to a great extent on how the Tribune Co.'s own uncertain future resolves itself. The company may survive as a publicly traded corporation but spin off valuable individual assets, like The Times or its major market television stations, such as KTLA, Channel 5. It may be broken up and all its parts sold off. Or it may survive in a slimmed-down and privatized form, which is the option some reports suggest its current managers favor.

But whether the Los Angeles Times returns to local ownership or is operated as part of one of these arrangements -- or even one yet to be proposed -- nearly everything that really matters about this newspaper's future, about its ability to keep faith with its readers and their communities, will turn on the answers to two questions:

How will the paper's proprietors, whoever they are, conceive The Times' role in Southern California, and are they willing to divert a sufficient share of the paper's substantial profits into the kind of reinvestment that will make the future possible?

To answer that first question, you have to understand what makes The Times unique among major American newspapers. Alone among the country's leading papers, this one is simultaneously the most important news organization in a vast region, the Western United States, the most influential source of news in the largest and most important state in the country and the hometown newspaper of one of the world's greatest and most important cities. At the same time, it is a paper with a national and international reach because the size, interests and sophistication of its local readership require those things. Finally, the demographic realities of the world's most ethnically and culturally diverse region dictate special obligations when it comes to coverage of Latin America and the Pacific Rim.

No other American newspaper must aspire to meet all those obligations at the same time. These are not negotiable obligations in the minds of the paper's readers, and, as easy as it is to blame recent declines in readership on paradigmatic shifts in media technology, the hard truth is that a significant part of that decline has come from an erratic management that has neglected one or another of these responsibilities.

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