A Chandler's advice for the L.A. Times
The newspaper can only thrive if its owners and
editors make drastic changes.
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
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.
In this era of multiple news sources, all next-day newspapers should
shift their emphasis from duplicated news — such as national and
world news and sports — to enterprise stories, analysis and
exclusives. Weeklies such as Time, Newsweek and Sports Illustrated
learned this years ago. The Times should become the indispensable
source about Southern California, even if that means reducing staff
in Washington and New York. Publish only columnists with original,
even provocative, perspectives. Pursue more investigative pieces and
assign fewer reporters to a story that 75% of readers already saw on
ESPN or CNN or Yahoo.
Growing readership increasingly means reaching an audience
electronically. Latimes.com has been a follower, not a leader,
having turned over decision-making to the Chicago management. This
needs to change.
A succession of publishers and editors who don't know an Amber Alert
from a SigAlert have been parachuted in to run The Times. The paper
needs executives who understand the area. Providing great editorial
coverage and civic leadership for this, the largest, most
complicated urban space in the world, are tasks unsuited to
outsiders whose tour of duty in the Southland may not outlast the
When was the last time the paper initiated a new local event, like
the Festival of Books? Or led a campaign for civic improvement? The
Times can continue the proud local legacy it had under my family's
leadership, but not with executives who don't understand and foresee
the city's needs.
Although Tribune seems unlikely to sell The Times, as that would run
counter to its big-market media strategy, an independent committee
of the board of directors is reviewing bids for this and other
Tribune properties as you read this.
We all should be worried about the possibility of a sale to an even
more profit-squeezing new owner, or some ego-driven entrepreneur
with an agenda. Heck, my great-great-grandfather, Harrison Gray
Otis, who bought the Times in 1882, was that type of guy, and it
took half a century for my father, Otis Chandler, to undo that
personal-pulpit legacy and make The Times the great newspaper it is.
Maybe it is best to look beyond corporate or private equity owners.
Like professional sports teams, newspapers are trophy properties,
able to create instant stature for their owners. The price is
usually less-than double-digit returns. Perhaps a "benevolent
billionaire" will rescue The Times. Sadly, my family trust appears
not to be interested.
Another sports ownership example worth contemplating is community
ownership, like that of the Green Bay Packers football team. Article
I of its bylaws states, "This association shall be a community
project, intended to promote community welfare … its purposes shall
be exclusively charitable." Sound appealing? If 20% of Times readers
invest $1,000, it could work. I'll write the first check for the Los
Angeles Times Community Owners LLC.
Hang in there, Times staffers and readers. There can be a winning
season again for this institution, but only if the owners change, or
their playbook does.