If daily newspapers were a poker tournament, this would be the late hour at which some smart-ass advises to “know when to hold em, know when to fold em.” Most of the old-time families packed up their chips years ago to spend their twilights playing the penny slots. Some very rich people thought they could do better; most have lost a lot of money. Now it’s Tribune Co.’s turn to push its chair back, even as others—Warren Buffett, Aaron Kushner, Gannett, Rupert Murdoch—lean forward.
Although many believe that the L.A. Times, Tribune’s crown jewel, is a cash cow even today, digital ad revenue just can’t make up for declines in advertising revenue and after four years in bankruptcy court—a process that finally ended on December 31— Tribune’s owners (who started out as lenders) want to get rid of the newspapers and stick to TV.
While Tribune Co. execs are vetting potential buyers of the L.A. Times, Ebyline asked several LAT insiders what they would do with the newspaper in their first 100 days if they were to take the reigns.
Focus on keeping it local.
The L.A. Times falls into a unique category when it comes to daily newspapers. Rather than being distinctly regional, local, or national, for a long time it tried to be all things to all people – competing with The New York Times and Wall Street Journal in scale and scope, the Orange County Register and L.A. Daily News for local coverage and The Hollywood Reporter and Variety on entertainment. Leo Wolinsky, a Pulitzer Prize winner and the LAT’s former managing editor, said the new owners should immediately look for local leadership.
“The very first thing I’d do is hire a publisher and editor who have history with and believe in forging strong connections to the Southern California communities served by the paper,” said Wolinsky. “This would be a radical change from the present. In fact, having a local owner as well would provide the best chance that the paper’s management understands it has a role beyond self-survival.”
Jeffrey Klein, a senior executive at the L.A. Times for 15 years in several roles, including as SVP and general manager of news, agreed that the daily needs to add emphasis to its coverage of issues specific to Southern California.
“In the area of editorial coverage, Southern California regional news, coverage of the Pacific rim and regaining its leadership in coverage of the entertainment and technology industries is critical,” he said. “It needs to be a thought leader with a distinctive California perspective.”
Find a niche. Or many of them.
In line with returning its gaze to SoCal, Geoffrey Cowan, President of the Annenberg Foundation Trust at Sunnylands and the former Dean of USC’s Annenberg School explained that the LA Times would be wise to establish a niche for itself beyond the realm of geography.
“I would ask the question, ‘Are there discrete communities, whether they’re geographical or they’re interspaced where the LA Times is the indispensable and unique source of information? Where readers and advertisers have to come and gather?’ I’d try to build around that concept,” he said.
Cowan cited reports that the L.A. Times website gets a large percentage of its visitors and pageviews outside of Southern California from its L.A. Lakers content.
“So what are the things that you have the unique information?” Cowan asked. “I would try to figure out where are those [content spaces] that you can own, where you can be indispensable, where somebody else can’t quickly replace you.”
Don’t discount digital. Accept lower profits.
Unlike the OC Register’s push to enliven its print publication and reverse its digital strategy, Klein, who went on to co-found a business-to-business publisher, explained that the Times’ “digital strategy and execution needs work and focus.”
“It can’t be a print-centric organization,” Klein said. “Print may be around for awhile, but it will be a declining asset and needs to be replaced with a focus on innovative digital content and leadership in developing new sources of digital revenue.”
Cowan, on the other hand, thinks that while newspapers will likely never be as profitable as they once were he doesn’t see them disappearing altogether.
“There was a time when newspapers were not terribly profitable,” said Cowan, “and then they became monopoly papers and became incredibly profitable. And now they’re going back to being less profitable. But that doesn’t mean that they can’t still survive and be important. I think there is nothing like a local newspaper ultimately…as the place that is the kind of civic center for the city. I think the L.A. Times can do it. I hope they do do it.”