A Times Obituary

When did the Times OC become the Times DOA?


One person in the arts community maintains, "The Times should at least let readers know they're not going to be covering the arts in Orange County anymore, so their readers can look elsewhere."

How about it, Times? Are you up for doing one of those sprawling bits of introspective soul-searching the paper so excels at whenever it disappoints its readers? What will you say to a region of nearly 3 million people when you've got scarcely more reportage on them than the Pennysaver does?

It was such a very slow attrition that one barely noticed the Times OC's shift from full armada to ghost ship. The previously cited Registereditor admits to a certain envy at the accomplishment: "As best as I can tally it, they cut their newsroom at least by half, and it didn't cost them much circulation."

No one thing was responsible for the change. Probably the main factor was that through the late 1990s, a series of industry-wide economic downturns—hikes in newsprint cost, department store chains and other major advertisers going out of business—caused the Times to reassess the money it was pouring into its Vietnam-like circulation war with the Register. The Times just gave up trying, which at least makes it easier for countians to eat dinner without being interrupted by subscription calls now.

The Times Mirror Corporation also got a new CEO in 1995, Mark Willes, previously the head of General Mills, where his cost- and job-slashing tactics earned him the nickname the Cereal Killer. Sure enough, Willes instituted rounds of layoffs and buy-outs at the Times, and they were none too kind, as the job market was already glutted with journalists from the just-closed New York Newsday and eclipsed evening edition of the Baltimore Sun, both also victims of Willes' management style.

Willes named himself publisher of the Times in 1997, where his chief contribution to journalism was to bulldoze the longstanding wall between the newsroom and the business and marketing sides of the paper. Soon, marketing people were allowed to help shape the paper's news content. The grandest example was the Times' special magazine section on the opening of the Staples Center, in which the Times gushed over the wonderfulness of the center, with which it was soon discovered that the Times had a secret profit-sharing deal. You might recall lots of ink was spent in soul-searching after that one.

The Staples fiasco had no direct impact on the Times OC, aside from sending morale deeper into the toilet. The Willes era's contribution to the county was the Orange County supersection, in which everything OC was crammed into Section Two of the paper. Or almost everything. If an event in OC was moving on to LA, then the coverage would jump to the Calendar section, and you had to look for movie reviews and show times in two different parts of the paper, and people basically just stopped looking altogether.

"It was when we started that god-awful supersection that we really started hearing protests of arts organizations' box offices falling off," said one Times staffer. "Before that, an advance story meant sales for them. We were still doing the advances, but they were buried back in the supersection, and no one saw them."

Media mergers are generally bad news for employees, but when it was announced in March 2000 that the Tribune Co., owner of the Chicago Tribune, was buying Times Mirror, the mood in the newsroom was already so low that almost any change was welcome. "We had people who knew nothing about newspapers running the paper," said one former editor, "so how could it get worse?"

The Tribune Co. killed the supersection, but they've also been killing off the Orange County newsroom. Instead of running stories no one could find, you can't find anyone to write them now, since much of the staff has been laid off or redeployed. The handful of arts and features writers remaining report to LA. Photographers who once worked the OC beat now don't know from day to day if they'll be sent to Ensenada or Encino.

Even Ann Conway, the queen of OC society-page columnists, mainly covers LA gatherings these days. This may be the strangest of the Times' retreats from the county, since, as a Register editor maintains, "The one area where the Times aced our circulation was with the monied Newport arts and society crowd. They looked at the Times as practically the official record of their doings." Can't they at least make the richpeople here happy?

There are other changes afoot at the Trib-owned Times, not all necessarily bad (they've recently hired longtime Weekly film critic Manohla Dargis). But you can bet that executives in Chicago don't devote much of their day to thinking about Orange County. Their effort is being expended on yet another redesign of the paper.

In practice, that generally means less focus on journalism and serving the community, and more on graphics and window-dressing. Among the changes being considered, one hears, is killing the daily Southern California Living features section and converting the Sunday Calendar from its tabloid format to a broadsheet.

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