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Here's what you get for a few coins

November 12, 2006|Steve Lopez

I was making my way back from Hemet, where I had just met with the family of a soldier killed in Iraq, when I thought about my colleague Doug Smith.

Smith, a Times scribe for 36 years, was on his third volunteer tour of duty reporting from Iraq. I know it's tough on his wife, Jackie, when he's away, so I called her at the Smith home in Pasadena to check in.

Jackie had just gotten off the phone with Doug, and there was nervous relief in her voice. He had been out of touch for a while, embedded with American troops. As it turned out, he'd been riding in an armored vehicle when the troops he was with came under fire. They were OK, Smith reassured his wife, and he'd be home soon.

I suggested we chain Doug to his desk next time he puts his hand up for combat duty. Jackie liked the idea, but she knew it wouldn't fly. She understands why her husband keeps returning to Iraq. There's no glory in it and no hazardous duty pay, but there's something more elemental.

"He thinks it's important for someone to be there and tell the story," she said.

I share this because newspapers do a lousy job of telling you what you get for two quarters on weekdays and a buck-fifty on Sunday. This paper's latest ad, in which prospective customers pause at a news rack and peer at the paper but can't seem to figure out whether to buy it, is so bad that whoever created it should be locked out of the building.

A good ad would tell you that Smith is under fire in Iraq, that T.J. Simers may soon come to blows with a Dodger or Laker, that Robin Abcarian's takes on local culture and celebrity are smart and sassy, that Dan Neil is on the Santa Monica Freeway test-driving another car, that George Skelton has explained everything on the California ballot with clarity and nary a hint of partisanship and that the coupons alone will cover the cost of dinner.

As you might have heard, the newspaper industry is struggling to figure out how to maintain readership and ad revenue as the business shifts to the Internet. And yet the geniuses who run the industry are loath to kick even 5% of their still-robust profits into telling you why you ought to buy a paper or check one out online.

The Times is my seventh newspaper. Before this job, I traveled around the country writing a column for Time magazine, and I read lots of newspapers. Trust me, we have one of the best in the country.

My boss at Time advised me not to take the job here. The Times has hurdles like no other publication, he warned, because not only are there 88 towns in L.A. County alone, but if you asked 100 people to design a paper to fit their own needs, you'd get 100 different plans.

I took the job for that reason. I wanted the challenge of trying to connect in a sprawling polyglot metropolis that's unconventional, ever-evolving and defiantly resistant to simple definitions. Though a newspaper can't be all things to all people, The Times searches out stories of universal local appeal and tries to craft national and international coverage to regional interests.

We can still do better in many ways. We should have developed the website more quickly. We need to connect in creative ways with more readers, and fast.

Unfortunately, greatness and ambition don't come on the cheap, something newspaper owners don't seem to get. In my 5 1/2 years here, two publishers and two editors who believed staff cuts were bad for business were pushed off the roof.

Those of us who are still here have a message for the brain trust in Chicago -- or for any of the local billionaires itching to buy the joint:

Even the most old-school curmudgeons among us know we've got to learn new tricks and do more with less if the newspaper business is going to thrive again. But the bones of this operation are still pretty strong, and severing limbs won't do the journalism or the bottom line any good.

I work in an office that's neat as a landfill, poorly lighted and so cramped that reporters and editors can hear one another breathe.

Ken Weiss works near me, a local native who, along with Usha McFarling and Rick Loomis, spent long days and nights -- more than a year -- reporting a groundbreaking series on the decline of the world's oceans.

I'm a few feet away from Charlie Ornstein and Tracy Weber, who barely took a breath after their expose of King/Drew Medical Center before moving on to an alarming series on organ transplants. And they share a work area with Cara Mia DiMassa, who has owned the story of downtown L.A.'s changing face.

I feel like a laggard when I see Joel Rubin and Howard Blume rush in from interviews and call out to each other as they coordinate daily stories on the revolutionary changes in the Los Angeles Unified School District.

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