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The L.A. Times's Human Wrecking Ball

By Harold Meyerson
Wednesday, June 11, 2008

Editors Note (Dec. 8, 2008): This column was first published on June 11, 2008. The Tribune Co. filed for bankruptcy protection today.

On Oct. 1, 1910, a bomb set by James McNamara, an operative of the Iron Workers union, then embroiled in a ferocious dispute with the Los Angeles Times, blew up the Times building, killing 21 pressmen. McNamara was arrested the following April, convicted and later sentenced to life in prison. He died in San Quentin in 1941.

The question for today is: Would a similar sentence be appropriate for Sam Zell?

Zell, for those of you fortunate enough not to follow news of the newspaper business, is the Chicago real estate magnate who last year purchased the Tribune Co., which owns the Times, the Chicago Tribune and a number of smaller papers. At the rate he's going, he's well on his way to accomplishing a feat that McNamara didn't even contemplate: destroying the L.A. Times.

In his brief tenure atop the Trib empire, Zell has concluded that the proper response to the very real troubles in which the newspaper industry finds itself is to cut back on what newspapers offer. When Zell took over, the Times had already been through successive rounds of buyouts and layoffs administered by Tribune executives, but Zell has taken bean counting to a whole new level.

During his first year in journalism, Zell has visited the city rooms and Washington bureaus of a number of Trib publications to deliver obscenity-laced warnings and threats to employees that whatever it was they were doing, it wasn't working. There was too much coverage of world and national affairs, he told Times writers and editors; readers don't want that stuff. Last week, the company decreed that its 12 papers would have to cut by 500 the number of pages they devoted every week to news, features and editorials, until the ratio of pages devoted to copy and pages devoted to advertising was a nice, even 1 to 1. At the Times, that would mean eliminating 82 pages a week.

As the company prepares to shed more reporters, it has measured writers' performances by the number of column inches of stories they ground out. It found, said one Zell executive, that the level of pages per reporter at one of Zell's smaller papers, the Hartford Courant (about 300), greatly exceeded that at the Times (about 50). As one of the handful of major national papers, however, the Times employs the kind of investigative and expert beat reporters not found at most smaller papers. I could name a number of Times writers who labored for months on stories that went on to win Pulitzers and other prizes, and whose column-inch production, accordingly, was relatively light. Doing so, I fear, would only put their necks on Zell's chopping block. So let me instead note that if The Post's Dana Priest and Anne Hull, who spent months uncovering the scandalous conditions at Walter Reed Army Medical Center, and whose reporting not only won a Pulitzer but caused a shake-up in the Army's treatment of wounded veterans, had been subjected to the Zellometer productivity index, they'd be prime candidates for termination.

Which is precisely, unfortunately, what's been happening at the Times. Voluntarily or not, large numbers of highly talented editors and reporters have left. The editorial staff is about two-thirds its size in the late 1990s, with further deep cuts in the offing. A paper that is both an axiom and an ornament of Los Angeles life, that helps set the political, business and artistic agenda for one of America's two great world metropolises, is being shrunk and, if Zell continues to get his way, dumbed down.

It's Zell's money, some would argue -- only, it's not. Of the $8.2 billion he used to take the paper private last year, Zell put up $315 million of his own money and used the employee stock ownership plan (without the consent of any employees, of course) to finance the rest. It's all legal, but that hardly means the deal was good for journalism or the cities where Zell owns papers.

Great newspapers take decades to build. We are discovering that they can be dismantled in relatively short order. The Los Angeles Times was a hyperpartisan, parochial broadsheet until Otis Chandler became its publisher in 1960 and began the work of transforming it into the paper of both record and insight that it's been for the past half-century. The diminution of such a paper diminishes its city, which is why L.A.'s otherwise disparate civic elites have periodically tried to restore the Times to local control since the Trib bought it at the turn of this century. Instead, in Zell, what Los Angeles has is a visiting Visigoth, whose civic influence is about as positive as that of the Crips, the Bloods and the Mexican mafia. Life in San Quentin sounds about right.

meyersonh@washpost.com

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