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Where does the Times go?

October 08, 2006|Michael Kinsley | Michael Kinsley is American Editor of the Guardian (London) and former editorial page editor of The Times.

OCCASIONALLY, during the year and change that I ran the opinion pages of this newspaper (ending a little over a year ago), I would pick a freeway and drive until I saw a Target or a Wal-Mart. Then I would stop, buy a T-shirt or something and head home. Having foolishly chosen to live downtown before Eli Broad was quite ready for me, this was as good a way as any to learn the lay of the land.

One time, I chose the 101, but quickly got tired and discouraged. So I checked into a motel in what turned out to be Thousand Oaks. (Yes, there is a Target on the 101 just past Thousand Oaks. I know that now.) In the morning, I sought out a Starbucks for coffee and the newspaper. It had the New York Times, like every Starbucks, and it had the Ventura Who-Cares-What-It's-Called. But no Los Angeles Times. Thousand Oaks is right across the border in Ventura County, yet apparently the L.A. Times couldn't even manage to get its paper into the local Starbucks.

The Los Angeles Times is a collection of mostly superb journalists who on many days put out the best newspaper in America. But what is the point of publishing a national-quality newspaper if it can't be obtained in Thousand Oaks, let alone Washington or New York? Tribune Co. is right that you don't need 1,200 journalists, or even 900, to put out a paper for Los Angeles County. Nor do you need a good website. (And the Times' -- through no fault of the people currently running it, who do their talented best with little encouragement from management -- is the worst of any major paper.) But why did Tribune pay $8 billion for the Times-Mirror papers in 2000 if its ambitions were so modest?

This won't be a problem for long. National-quality journalists who work for the L.A. Times, attracted by good salaries and great editors (first, John Carroll and now Dean Baquet), endure the frustration of not being read by the people they write about. If money keeps getting tighter and the paper's ambitions keep getting narrower, they will leave if they can, or won't come to work in L.A. in the first place. Then The Times will be an adequate provincial paper like the Chicago Tribune, and the tension of being prettier than the boss' daughter will be resolved.

My own departure from the L.A. Times does not in any way illustrate this dilemma. An apparatchik anointed by Chicago to be publisher, named Jeffrey Johnson, accepted my invitation to have a discussion about my role and then discussed his view that my services were no longer desired. Why? I still don't know, exactly. But there are plausible theories, none having to do with money. Jeff let me go so artfully that I was back in my own office before I realized that I'd been canned. Later, he banned my column from the paper too. But since then, Jeff apparently went native (to use the phrase from Friday's Page 1 story), sided with the editor in opposing the latest round of cuts, and now he's been fired too. It's like the French Revolution: You guillotine me, then someone else guillotines you. Sorry, Jeff.

L.A. Times journalists are not entirely blameless for the chaos and carnage. Journalists know how to stage a great hissy fit. And I'm not sure a fit was really called for in the initial staff reductions. On the editorial page (I can reveal, from the safety of hindsight) we initially had 15 people producing 21 editorials a week! So now cries that Tribune Co. has moved from cutting fat to cutting bone ring a bit hollow.

The other issue that ignited flames of self-righteousness in my colleagues was any attempt to integrate The Times into the Tribune chain, or to achieve economies of scale by sharing costs. This sensitivity seems especially shortsighted -- first, because logic was completely on Tribune's side. (Why should one company be paying four or five reporters to cover the same one-person beat?) And second, because in any merger or pseudo-merger of Tribune papers, the Los Angeles Times would clearly come out on top.

In fact, there may be no better way to preserve The Times' role as a major newspaper (if that is of any interest to its owners). These days, on the one hand, thanks to the Internet, any newspaper can be a national newspaper. On the other hand, near universal availability of the New York Times print edition makes the traditional role of a regional paper like the Los Angeles Times superfluous.

But now imagine the Tribune chain as a single newspaper with separate editions in each of its cities. Call it the National Tribune. Or the papers could keep their separate identities, but carry a "Tribune" insert or wraparound with national and international news. This paper would start out with towering dominance in two of the nation's top three markets (Los Angeles and Chicago) and a solid position, via Newsday, in the largest (New York). It would even have a toehold in Washington (thanks to the Baltimore Sun). All this, and Orlando too.

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