Sunday, July 27, 2008

Witnessing A Los Angeles Institution's Slow Decline to Mediocrity

The last three months have been gut-wrenching for Los Angelenos, as we have witnessed a beloved Los Angeles landmark slowly erode, descending into mediocrity. Overall quality has suffered, as the legends of the staff have mostly faded away or retired, often leaving a wispy-thin product with tons of holes. On-the-field mistakes cause fans to roll their eyes. And as one watches the slow deterioration every single day, it's pretty clear that the glory years are behind it, and the future quality is uncertain at best.

But thus is the state of the Los Angeles Times, the newspaper that I grew up with and idolized, and has now become a shell of its former self.

The LA Times' attempt to achieve birdcage-lining fodder has been a slow decay over the last five years or so, but it seems to have picked up the pace of its plummet into terminal velocity over the last couple of months, as page counts have dwindled, whole sections have disappeared, and advertisements have become more obtrusive (stickers on the front page blocking text; banner ads taking up 1/6 of a section's cover page). I could deal with the ads--after all, I know how important advertising and not circulation is to a newspaper's overall revenue--but when substance is severely compromised, it's hard not to notice the ads' prominence.

And substance has clearly suffered as well. Column One continues to be a relatively engaging news-features read, with the requisite catchy leads and overall length that allows true insights to emerge. But as news bureau reports give way to wire feeds from the AP or Reuters that aren't much of a premium to what one could pick up over Yahoo! News, what's the point? Perhaps abdicating national and world news stories is to be expected for the news staff of the US' #2 city, but that seems a little sad to me.

But fine, I can get the NY Times for my national coverage, and depend on the LA Times for local coverage, right? If you're buying a handbag here in LA, you're in luck, as far as I can tell from the LA Times' "Image" style section thrust in front of my face each Sunday. Bundled atop the Sunday paper, Image loudly proclaims the city's love of superfluousness, burying important news behind in the less-important and under-resourced sections. California, a section once called "Metro", is still back behind the front section, but like the city's public transportation system that inherited its abandoned name, it's mostly unused and its key parts don't seem to get very far or deep.

And then there was always the Sports section, which was a standout for the LA Times, particularly in relative comparison with the Sporting Green of the San Francico Comical. The Comical's paper was tinged with a green color border back in the days of black and white print, an interesting attempt to deflect attention from theh wispy-thin columnists (before Scott Ostler abandoned us) and homer-filled coverage (after all, if the sports story was at all important, such as any off-season article pertaining to the 49ers, it was simply elevated to the front page). The Comical's sports page was a joke. The LA Times gave you sports coverage, insight, and opinions. We didn't need no stinkin' green border.

Today's Sports section was indeed full and insightful, particularly for a Dodger fan, making it hard to complain. Dylan Hernandez did a fine recap of the game and "Dodgers FYI" section (funny that the LAT changed "Dodgers Report" to "Dodgers FYI", as if tha acronym conveyed a trendiness or youth-speak that would counterbalance the rest of the paper's traditional nature). TJ Simers used his Page 2 column to unload his grumpiness on new Dodger Casey Blake and Alan Hale Jr.--er, Ned Colletti, playing the role of a skipper without compass. Bill Shaikin, picking up admirably after Ross Newhan's retirement, added his wood to the fire burning beneath the Dodgers' entropy-filled front office, likening Colletti and McCourt's madcap antics to a scene from Sid and Marty Krofft's Banana Splits Adventure Hour. Even Bill Plaschke had a passable article on Walter O'Malley (a passable article mostly becuase it was shorter than normal). Hernandez added a profile piece on Blake; Shaikin's "bottom half" column of factoids previewed the Dodgers' upcoming week and recapped the minor league standouts, and there was even an article on how the Dodgers Shuttle siphoned $9,000 away from McCourt's parking lot tills (with 600 riders on its first day of service).

Seven Dodger-related articles, plus some extra tidbits here and there. It was a good day to be a Dodger fan and LA Times subscriber. And given how it was a rare day when we could expect this sort of multi-faceted, insightful coverage on our favorite LA team, I am indeed appreciative.

So it was sad to me to have to turn back to the front section (I read the sports page first, of course) and see the half-page letter from LAT Editor Russ Stanton, basically throwing up the white flag and committing the rest of the paper--I assume sports section included, today's cornucopia notwithstanding--to continued erosion and decay. "In-depth journalism remains our hallmark," Stanton wrote, before basically insinuating that it's mostly moving to online, leaving the regular newspaper even more thin that it was before.

The Opinion section, which was already reduced to an embarrassing "flip book" with the Book Review section, is now shuttered altogether as opinions get shoved into the back of the front page, and book reviews get squished into the Calendar section (renamed Arts and Books). If it seems odd that the daily paper of the worldwide capital of the entertainment industry is shrinking its entertainment coverage (the weekend "Guide" section is another casualty), I suppose it's because we are too busy buying handbags. Business is getting re-focused on personal finance, which means endless stories on the bursting of our speculative housing bubble, which took down the Real Estate section (which had been part of the LA Times since 1901) as one of its many casualties. And I'm sure that every section will get pared down and whittled away to nothing, following more layoffs dictated by the Zell Hounds.

Stanton trumpets the LA Times' growing online readership as the rationale for this directional shift, but this is just smoke and mirrors. Readers of the New York Times online can tell the difference between a quality newspaper's online site, complete with multimedia insets, easy navigation, and even "most blogged" links, versus the patchwork site thrown together by the LA Times. Particularly striking is the disparity in the two papers' mobile sites--the NY Times makes it easy to navigate a wealth of stories from the front section and within sections, while the LA Times' mobile site offers a fraction of stories navigable by blackberry. It's like comparing a gas station convenience store with a Whole Foods--there ain't that much floor space, but the shelves are pretty empty anyway.

If the LA Times' changes are to embrace the online future, then why hasn't the basic online infrastructure been assembled first? And if it offers less selection than Yahoo news' mobile service, why bother stopping by at all?

I looked at today's Sunday LA Times with sadness, and at the unusually rich sports section today as if it were the last gasp of a once-proud newspaper. I hope I'm wrong, and the sections that depend upon insightful local and thoughtful national reporting will continue to flourish and provide content for both print and online media vehicles. The Beijing Olympics and upcoming political conventions and race will be perfect tests to see if the LA Times will set its own course and mark, or just depend on swiping and reprinting wire feeds from others.

A great city needs a great paper. The LA Times was once that paper, and now it is in peril of becoming as irrelevant as a turntable record. Don't give up the fight, LA Times, lest you become as Comical as the rag published up north.