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Advice for a troubled Times

November 12, 2006|Harry B. Chandler | Harry B. Chandler has been a media executive in film, TV, the Internet and at The Times.

FOR MONTHS, many of us have been wringing our hands about the situation at the Los Angeles Times. And last week, when Tribune Co. forced out Editor Dean Baquet, it only underscored how dire the situation is at the newspaper. As a member of the Chandler family, which founded and controlled this institution for nearly 120 years, I have found these events to be particularly troubling.

First, let me clear up misconceptions about "the Chandler family." It is not a small group that meets at "the club" on Sundays, but rather 170 living descendants of Harry Chandler and his wife, Marian, who established the trusts that controlled The Times and its corporate cousins until the sale to Tribune in 2000. Many members of this extended family live outside Southern California; most are not named Chandler. Although many of us have a financial interest in Tribune, only eight sit on the board that makes decisions about the trust. I believe only seven, including me, have worked at The Times.

My point is that a family of this size, largely personally disconnected from this newspaper, is unlikely to act in concert toward a solution for The Times. What a shame that is.

For what it's worth, my view -- as a shareholder, former employee and namesake of Harry Chandler, the paper's second publisher -- is that The Times is not terminally ill, nor are most newspapers. Like radio after the arrival of TV, newspapers will evolve, redefine themselves and, yes, perhaps shrink as the Internet lures away readers.

This evolution has already produced unfortunate casualties, and it will continue to do so. The Times has weathered reduced coverage, an unprecedented turnover of key staff, a nearly 50% workforce reduction and a companywide morale decline. If we allow this to continue, we will be left without the news coverage Los Angeles needs and has come to rely on. Other local broadcast, print and Internet media can't pick up the slack; their reporting staffs combined are a fraction of The Times'.

After decades of editorial improvement, growing readership and profitability, how did this reversal of fortunes occur? The migration of readers and advertisers to the Internet is afflicting all newspapers, but a series of regrettable mistakes accelerated The Times' problems. I place the epicenter in the late '90s with the appointments of two executives/publishers, Mark H. Willes and Kathryn M. Downing, who had no media experience. They undervalued the Internet revolution and initiated a series of failed experiments that led to dissatisfaction and an exodus of editorial and business staff, myself included. Then, rather than hire new executives, the Chandler family trust board reached out to Tribune and unexpectedly sold The Times and its sister publications.

Tribune's "larger is better" synergy plan appears to be faring no better. There have been more missteps, including circulation overstatements, a pullback from Internet initiatives and unsuccessful growth strategies from Tribune's chief executive. Over five years, Tribune has sent three publishers to The Times with mandates for short-term profit targets that could only be achieved by staff and quality reductions. Meanwhile, the value of the Tribune stock that my family trusts received in the sale has declined by about 40%.

How can The Times recover? To offset declining revenues, it needs to reduce expenses with the least effect on its editorial mission. One idea is an a la carte newspaper -- one that delivers stock tables, sports sections or comics only to the subscribers who want them. This would require re-engineering printing and distribution systems at some expense, but it would offer substantial newsprint savings.

The time also has come to more aggressively consolidate national and international bureaus so that they serve multiple newspapers, as former Times editorial page editor Michael Kinsley suggested in these pages several weeks ago.

But it is declining readership that requires truly innovative (some would say heretical) moves. I would propose aligning editors' compensation with the success of the sections they steward. Start by measuring the impact of certain coverage or columns, which is more complicated than simply sizing up popularity with readers. It wouldn't be easy. But with benchmarks established, editors could be given incentives to fill their pages with must-read stories that make water-cooler conversations and e-mails buzz. These, rather than winning Pulitzers, should be the paper's editorial goals.

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