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L.A. Times Staff Cuts, and Making Do with 700

July 3rd, 2008 · 10 Comments · LANG, Sports Journalism

I take no pleasure in the cuts at the Los Angeles Times. Even though the Times was the main competition for most of my journalism career, and it’s a test to avoid the instinctive “what’s bad for them is good for me!” mind-set of days gone by.

This was the newspaper derisively known as “The Whale” by the scrappy Herald-Examiner (which LAT drove into extinction nearly 20 years ago) and sometimes as “The Velvet Coffin” inside its own building (for its soft and cushy torpor and till-death employment). But it was the gold standard for the SoCal market, if not the entire state of California. If not the U.S. this side of the Rockies.

Those of us who competed against it, in our own small, regional way, never lost sight of that. We couldn’t be the Times, and we may not have wanted to be (preferring to have a more direct and personal impact on a smaller market) … but knowing it was out there was a comfort. “Hey, look, there’s somebody that pays big salaries and spends money like mad … and they’re truckin’ right along!”

Well, they no longer are truckin’. They are withering. The plan is to go from 850-plus employees in the newsroom to 700 and change.

And it is alarming for every other print journalist in the region. Because if LAT is in such dire straits that it feels compelled to lose 17 percent of its workforce … well, what hope is there for the (barely) surviving suburbans in the region, where cutbacks are met with a shrug?

Still, and all, I keep coming back to this thought:

A newsroom with 700 full-time staffers in it?

I think I could run a pretty good newspaper with 700. I would take my chances, with 700.

One of the factors not stressed often enough in the general hand-wringing over LAT cutbacks is this one:

The Times’ vanishing newshole.

This is a newspaper that has lost a major chunk of its editorial pages in recent years. I’m just going to throw out a number and suggest it is down 50 percent, from its zenith perhaps a decade ago, in pages allocated to news.

The newspaper I still subscribe to has gotten smaller and smaller. And with the newshole LAT currently has … you certainly don’t need 875 (or whatever) employees to put out that paper. Even taking into account the people who work on the Internet side.

A specific area: The sports section.

I know something about putting out a sports section. It is what I did for 30 years. And the shrunken sports sections LAT has produced in the last several years … our staff of 12-15 (including part-timers) from the 1980s and 1990s could have produced. No problem. (In fact, toward the end of my tenure as sports editor, there were days when we had more newshole than did LAT’s sports section.)

We wouldn’t have been as polished. We wouldn’t have traveled nearly as much. We wouldn’t have produced the same sort of enterprise (though enterprise has nearly disappeared from LAT sports) … but we could have done it. We could have produced a coherent, mostly staff-generated, interesting section of eight pages and perhaps 40 columns of newshole (which seems to be LAT’s daily sports average) with those 12-15 people. And did, year after year.

The point being, LAT certainly can put out a decent sports section with a fraction of the people it now employs. And I’m certain that every sober employee that works in that section knows it. They can look around the room and say, “yeah, we could do without him and him and her …”

They have seen the dive in pages, the shortened stories, the reduction in slugs … and they know they sure as hell don’t need, what, 50? 60? 80? sports full-timers to make that happen.

I empathize with those who are about to leave the industry at a time not of their own choosing. I have been there. I know exactly how difficult that will be. Complete with the looming realization that your chances of getting back into the field are slim — and almost certainly will involve an enormous pay cut.

But their departure will not destroy the sports section. It still will have far more people than any other regional print or online competitor, more veteran and well-connected reporters and editors.

Let’s extrapolate that around the newsroom. Take out every fifth employee. That sounds brutal, but think of it this way: You get to keep the other four.

What’s left of LAT still will be formidable, with more than enough people to put out a very nice newspaper — unless the work ethic there has utterly collapsed.

(Yes, LAT people might say, “Our stories are more thorough, more researched, better-sourced than those at other newspapers in the region; comparing our production to that of a reporter on a suburban is meaningless.” There is something to that. But not to the point that you can’t generate lots of copy and put out a very good newspaper with what is left. Maybe not as slick as it might have been, if people actually are ultra-thorough and not just sluggish. But pretty darn good.)

Maybe it is useful to think of this from the bottom up.

“You are going to run a regional SoCal newspaper, and you get to have 700 editorial employees and pay them, oh, $80,000 each, on average.”

What news executive wouldn’t jump at the chance to do that?

I hope that is how LAT executives approach this. Keep the best, bid adieu to the rest.

A wild-card here: Will LAT target its highest-paid employees? If so, that tweaks things, because some of them are your best, most-recognizable employees. Going after salaries, as the primary criterion, probably is what the bean-counters would prefer, but if newsroom executives can resist that, they should.

Also, LAT needs to make sure it loses some people with titles. The rank and file probably is convinced the paper already has far too many titled people, and I imagine it does. Managers shouldn’t be above the layoffs. I’d guess LAT could do without an assistant city editor or three.

There is no denying this will be awful for the 150 newspaper people who will lose their jobs between now and Labor Day.

But it is disingenuous to suggest that a Los Angeles Times of 700 editorial employees somehow will be a journalistic sham. In fact, it is ridiculous. Even if the current 850-some were going full-blast, and I’m going to guess they weren’t … if the surviving 80 percent of the staff turns up production by 20 percent … you’ve just covered your losses. And I am sure of this: The bigger the paper, the more unused production in the newsroom.

A few other thoughts here …

1. If I were the LAT editor or publisher, I would trade even more layoffs for more guaranteed newshole. If your newspaper is so tight you can’t get stories into it … that just destroys morale. I worked through a few periods like that, and it was awful. LAT’s current print configuration probably can’t accommodate the output of even 400 editorial employees. And yes, the future is the ‘net, but 80-90 percent of the ad revenue still is on the print side. Your product has to have some heft, for the near term.

2. LAT has to do a better job of getting the work of its surviving employees onto the web. Let’s guess and say 400 of the remaining 700 are reporters … the current website doesn’t seem to reflect anything approaching that number.

It needs to come up with an easy-to-navigate site that reflects the size of its staff.

3. If any LAT reporter/columnist/photog hasn’t already realized that he or she needs to think in terms of the web, and the immediacy that requires … they sure as hell better from here on out. It could be the difference between continued employment and a new career in something not remotely as fun.

4. I don’t like the “between now and Labor Day” aspect of LAT’s approach to this. If executives actually spend the entirety of those two months … it will produce a period of extreme paranoia and nervousness in the newsroom that can’t help but harm the product — and trash morale.

The sooner this is done, the better. At the least, they ought to get the bulk of the firings done in a matter of weeks. Even if they’re hedging because “we don’t know exactly what sort of product we want to have, two months hence.” Editors already should have a pretty good idea of the people they believe they can live without. No matter what product they are headed for.

5. It would be an extraordinarily interesting social experiment to be a fly on the wall inside Times Mirror Square for the next two weeks (to two months). Will everyone break into a work equivalent of a sprint to try to save their jobs? How many will turn passive and wait for the executioner? Maybe this is ghoulish, but how employees react to what (in theory) will be a competence- and productivity-based round of layoffs … could make for a great magazine article — or masters/doctoral thesis.

6. For those of us who already have Gone Over to the Other Side during the Great Print Purge of 2008, it just got tougher to think in terms of resuming a career — because 150 additional people … people good enough to get hired by a major metro … are now on the market.

Reality? Most of us shaken out in the last year should be thinking of another career.

7. Here are my 10 tips for keeping your print job. I did these in March, just after getting fired. I believe most still apply, even to a major metro.

Anyway … 700 people? That is enough. The Light Brigade charged with 600. The Spartans defended Thermopylae with 300. Well, OK, those all were bloody disasters … But the point is, you can get a lot done with 700 newspaper people. A lot.

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10 responses so far ↓

  • 1 John Hollon // Jul 4, 2008 at 6:21 pm

    The problem with the notion of trading newsroom cuts for newshole is that LAT upper mangagement isn’t negotiating anything. They are cutting both and the newsroom will take it and live with it, If newsprint prices weren’t at a 10 year high, well, maybe you might be able to get some wiggle room. With the current prices, forget it.

    But … I agree that 700 people is still a huge newsroom for any newspaper west of the Hudson. You can still put out a really good paper with that kind of staff, but the LAT needs more production out of everybody to do so.

  • 2 b phife // Jul 7, 2008 at 7:10 am

    What a long-winded thoughtless piece of drivel.

  • 3 jk // Jul 7, 2008 at 7:51 am

    Wow. My sincerest thanks for posting a blog that has essentially been running through my head every time I see the latest news about cuts at big dailies.

    There are always the same old lamentations about how many good people are being cut, and how short-staffed the paper in question will be.

    This is dead-on in noting how much dead wood is in big-daily newsrooms EVERYWHERE.

    That tired old retort, that the sort of journalism the big papers put out ‘can’t be compared’ to that of smaller or suburban ones, is largely a crock as well. “Better sourcing?” Sure, definitely it is easier to get sources and access when you are the L.A. Times. Hell, I might even go out on a limb and say that sometimes big-daily beat reporters get something called a ‘leak’ now and then…

    I can’t imagine what 700 people are DOING all day…it’s sick to think of it!

    Copy editors probably reading 3-4 stories a day each, reporters filing 2-3 times a week…I see it happen, it definitely happens.

    A little shakeup is good for the news business. You shouldn’t make $80K a year and not have to bust your ass.

  • 4 turmon // Jul 7, 2008 at 8:29 am

    Re point 4, the reason for the prolonged cut period is to avoid triggering certain state of CA regs required for “layoffs”, which involve increased payouts.

  • 5 jimwhite // Jul 7, 2008 at 8:31 am

    I also competed against the Whale, and agree with you that 700 is way too many for a newspaper of this soon-to-be diminished size. But unlike you, I really did not admire the LAT in its fat and lazy days, but seethed with jealousy that my LAT competitors could get away with making so little effort. Because it was the LAT, the reporters there got stories presented to them on a silver platter, while we had to scramble for the crumbs that fell off the table. I thought we did a hell of a job. Those days are gone now, and I am sorry to feel this way, but I am doing a victory dance.
    You also point to the turmoil that is coming as a staff of 700 scrambles to fit their efforts into a 400-staff news hole. Sam Zell’s 50-50 order is going to mean very slim newsholes some weeks. Christmas and back-to-school week will see a huge demand for copy, but what about the dog days of summer vacation and the January-February doldums?

  • 6 JayCeezy // Jul 7, 2008 at 9:50 am

    I have read the LAT for 35 years, enjoying it less and less, to the point where I now take pleasure in their failures. For years, they have been judging the performance of others, from the Dodgers to the LAPD to Governors, etc. It must have been a very comfortable feeling for Times editors and staffers in being anointed to judge, without accountability. It is the same smug feeling I am enjoying each time I read about page cuts, staff cuts, falling readership, and embarrassments like Andres Martinez, Chuck Phillips, and the Staples advertising debacle.

  • 7 TR // Jul 7, 2008 at 10:37 am

    I (voluntarily) left a middle-management job in a Tribune-owned TV newsroom seven months ago … my position was not filled; another middle manager took on a few more duties. And that’s exactly what I suggested as I stepped out the door. A year earlier, I went to a regional company “leadership” event in LA. The tables were laden with people from the LA Times who had all manner of extremely granular titles … assistant to the assistant director of direction of classified advertising conceptualization visualization production management theory backup division … ok, maybe that’s a BIT of an exaggeration, but not much. I worked in newspapers early in my career, dailies (in towns big and small) that happened to be the local “scrappy underdog,” and we worked like mad. If you have a newspaper, big or small, look to see who’s not creating content, and whether you can move them over to content creation. Of course some support staff is needed but my stars, nothing like the size that currently exists. (And if a lot of that staff is producing the dead-tree version, be brave, go online. Seriously.)

  • 8 Cliff // Jul 7, 2008 at 11:00 am

    There is no doubt that all you say is true. However, they are cutting the number of pages as well as staff. So there will be no need for those who remain to step up to the plate anymore than they do already.

    Then, for my narrow perspective, less content means that there is less incentive for me to continue my subscription. I can local news from my local paper and national news from NPR.

  • 9 VIC // Jul 8, 2008 at 8:58 pm

    The beginning-of-the-end for the Times was the hiring of all the idiots laid off when the Herald-Examiner folded

  • 10 greg macormack // Jul 8, 2008 at 9:29 pm

    I certainly do hope Zell’s “plan” works, at least long enough for me to finish serving out my days on this sphere with some reasonable semblance of good reporting, which I do feel I have gotten from the LA Times during my thirty-odd year stay out here, in my adopted state. The discussions about this subject are endlessly fascinating, Keep it up!

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