LOS ANGELES – Is a local newspaper a business, or is it a sort of public trust?
Do its owners have a right to run it the way they want, make the cuts they see necessary to make a profit, or do leaders of the local community have some right – or responsibility – to fight for what they see as the integrity of the paper and especially its local coverage?
These issues are being played out in the most public way in the dispute now going on in Los Angeles over the fate of the Los Angeles Times. Two events this week helped to crystallize the issue.
First, a group of 20 civic leaders in Los Angeles sent an open letter to the leadership of the Tribune Co., the Chicago-based owners of the Times, calling on Tribune either to invest more in the paper or to sell it. That was an unusual step. But what was even more unusual was what happened next.
Second, the newspaper itself went public with its defiance of its corporate owners’ insistence on staff cutbacks. In a story in which the paper covered itself, the editor and publisher announced that they had been asked by the corporate higher-ups to make further cutbacks, and refused to do so.
“I am not averse to making cuts,” Dean Baquet, the paper’s highly respected editor, said. “But you can go too far, and I don’t plan to do that.”
The publisher, Jeffrey Johnson, who unlike Baquet (a former New York Timesman) was brought in from Chicago by Tribune, surprised many by going along with his editor rather than his corporate bosses. “Newspapers can’t cut their way into the future,” he said.
As columnist Steve Lopez put it, Johnson drank the Kool Aid.
Morale in the newsroom got a boost. What happened in the boardroom in Chicago, one can only guess. Scott Smith, the head of Tribune’s newspaper division, issued one of those non-statements that typify corporate America: “In this rapidly changing media environment, we are all working together to best serve our communities, customers and shareholders.”
The problem, of course, is that those interests are not the same. Shareholders have an interest in maximizing profits. Communities and customers have an interest in maximizing (and improving) news coverage. The two, particularly in this environment, do not go hand-in-hand, at least in the first instance.
What makes the situation particularly interesting is that, waiting in the wings, are some of Los Angeles' richest men, eager to own the local newspaper in the same way tycoons buy up baseball teams, for the prestige and the play, if not the profit. Would they invest more? Be less bottom line conscious? Would the city be better off? And does that give civic leaders a right to meddle in corporate business? The answer is that they don’t need permission. As for the editor and publisher, theirs is a high stakes game.
Newspapers are businesses, but they are also players in a political environment; citizens of the cities in which they publish. A newspaper that loses the support of its community will not thrive. A newspaper company that does its politics poorly will ultimately pay in the bottom line.
That is what is happening in Los Angeles. The ability of the paper to improve its profits is being undercut by the political campaign being waged by outsiders – and now insiders – to force its owners to sell. The sale is quickly becoming a self-fulfilling prophecy.
The day may well be coming when newspapers are like sports teams; the toys of the rich, bought by billionaires to be players, instead of owned by publicly held companies.
The real question is: Will communities be better served that way? Will coverage be fair, or will billionaire boy owners with no backgrounds in journalism prove unduly meddlesome in ways that make Tribune a fond memory (think about Wendy McCaw, the billionaire owner of the Santa Barbara New Press, who went off and fired half her top staff).
In Los Angeles, we may soon find out.
Susan Estrich is currently the Robert Kingsley Professor of Law and Political Science at the University of Southern California and a member of the Board of Contributors of USA Today. She writes the "Portia" column for American Lawyer Media and is a contributing editor of The Los Angeles Times. She was appointed by the president to serve on the National Holocaust Council and by the mayor of the City of Los Angeles to serve on that city's Ethics Commission.
Estrich's books include "Real Rape," "Getting Away with Murder: How Politics Is Destroying the Criminal Justice System," "Dealing with Dangerous Offenders," "Making the Case for Yourself: A Diet Book for Smart Women" and "Sex & Power," currently a Los Angeles Times bestseller.
She served as campaign manager for Michael Dukakis' presidential bid, becoming the first woman to head a U.S. presidential campaign. Estrich appears regularly on the FOX News Channel.