Times SAGA No Death Knell For Print Media

    The crows are circling; they can sense a dying gasp.

    I suppose it’s more of my bad luck that I’ve chosen a career belonging to a lulling industry. This month, reapers of all sorts eyed the Los Angeles Times, nipping for a taste — a euphemism for big business “”bidding”” — of one of the most storied newspapers in the country.

    Statistic enthusiasts are looking for the nearest shelter. Who can blame them? Last fall, the Times cut 85 slots in its newsroom to deal with a stock price that had plummeted.

    The prospects have also put newsrooms on edge. And with the ouster of editors, continual fiscal slide and shrinking employee base, the death knell of the Times seems to ring for both that publication and the newspaper at large.

    But I’ve become a contrarian to the idea of the dead-and-gone newspaper. Let’s call it the transitional age, hitting rock bottom right before you decide to buy that new red Ferrari.

    If the Times is taken as an example, the dying industry would be the aftermath of a soap opera fight, full of egos and layers we missed because the gore of the action was sweeter. In 2000, the $8-billion marriage between the Times and Chicago Tribune’s parent company, Tribune Co., was a gamble to trailblaze another news age, milking media synergy from the two companies’ ownership of TV stations in several metropolitan cities. The combination proved sour. Two leading editors and the publisher were axed in roughly over a year.

    For me, Times’ journalist James Rainey’s account — part of the Times’ weeklong story blitz amidst its upheaval — made a childish play of the supposedly complex problem. The many moving parts were distilled to an age-old misunderstanding about journalism: Its coziness with commerce is limited, and far more fragile than other business relationships. The third-party damage done by the insensitivity of big business is more costly in journalism, and the public suffers.

    As so, the Times’ editors clashed with a burgeoning tide of fiscal minds. Bottom line low? Cut some staff. Lagging sales figures? Time for more bloodletting. It was a dolt’s mentality, with no respect for history.

    The constant infighting bred dysfunction for the Times. And soon enough, the newspaper’s employee count had halved in six years. In journalism, there are some relationship requisites, and “”don’t touch my staff”” counts as one of them. In response, the revolving door of editors whirled and here we are, at the crossroads of the Times, and perhaps the industry it champions.

    But now, the Times’ outlook seems just right — juicy enough for innovation and financial growth, but traditionalist enough to allow editors the flexibility needed for newsroom operation.

    Film baron David Geffen — one part of creative cadre that formed DreamWorks SKG — is lining up to buy the Times. Alongside him is a partnership of Los Angeles-based billionaires, Eli Broad and Ron Burkle. All three have publicly pledged that the purchase is meant to be in the civic interest. While hot air in business can be rampant, when there are journalists involved, you better bet long-term memory is in play.

    A turn from the money-based union with the Tribune Co. is refreshing. The three bidders have promised to fortify the newspaper’s local roots rather than force it to be worn thin by wider-but-weaker coverage.

    For editors, the potential is obvious in a partnership with either Geffen, whose media clout has few rivals, or Broad/Burkle, who together are worth over $5 billion. Pliable ownership, coupled with creative and financial backing, would give the newspaper brass a stint to breathe and adapt to a world of flash and glamour. The Times’ recent redesign — with the installation of a boldly large and almost gaudy font — is just a small tidbit of the newspaper’s adaptation to a public that wants fun with its politics. Distancing initial changes like that from the core ideals of newsroom — i.e. its staff and reporting — is key to avoid another.

    The Times’ bidding trio aren’t the only ones concerned about the industry’s health. Google’s initiative to sell newspaper ads online is a gamble to pull the industry from dire straits. The move, which went against all business wisdom, showed a zest for industry development without touching the precious newsroom.

    The newspaper is not dead. It’s just licking its wounds, waiting for a new age.

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