The surprise March 12 announcement that Chicago-based media conglomerate Tribune Co. will purchase the Times Mirror Corp. and its key subsidiary Los Angeles Times produced something like apocalyptic anxiety around LA—unless, of course, you're among those who believe things couldn't get much worse for the Times.
Critics note that the deal marks the end of a century of locally owned daily newspapers in LA. Meanwhile, over at the Times' Orange County newsroom in Costa Mesa, one editor said the takeover has caused "a lot of gnashing of teeth. The talk is about retreating. 'Minimalization' is the word you hear a lot."
Readers of the Times' Orange County edition know minimalization. Day after day, the rival Orange County Register publishes at least twice as many local stories. By one inside account, Times OC editor Lennie La Guire has axed her local reporting staff by as much as 30 percent in two years. Those left behind will be forgiven if they can't recall their boss' names: following editor Narda Zacchino's seven-year stint ending in the early 1990s, the OC edition has seen a head-spinning four editors in eight years. The Reg now claims it controls its largest market share ever, 64 percent.
Will the Tribune Co. rescue the Times' disintegrating OC bureau? Times reporters are uncertain. According to an award-winning Times editor, "It may be impossible for anybody to be worse" than current Times Mirror boss Mark Willes; his background is in an industry far from journalism—breakfast cereal. "The guy was disastrous," the editor said. "There's no question he brought down the reputation of the Times."
A veteran Times OC staffer—who described his bureau as a "junk yard" for downtown editors—said, "Morale was already at an all-time low. This leads to uncertainty. Will they make further [newsroom] cuts in Orange County?"
Le Guire has tried to calm fears by claiming the new owners won't do anything drastic. Tribune Co. chief executive John Madigan told Reuters on March 13 that "no layoffs are planned." In fact, it's not only likely but also almost guaranteed that the new owners—carrying $6 billion in new debt acquired in the Times Mirror purchase—will not only cut, but lop, sever and carve.
In the 1980s, under Zacchino, the Times poured money into its circulation war with the Register, hiring great reporters from around the country and providing stable leadership. When that war proved unwinnable in the early 1990s, Times Mirror began treating its OC edition as a farm team. It cycled in a series of uncommitted editors and shuffled the best and brightest talent downtown. It was journalistic brain-drain; the paper has never recouped. It now increasingly relies on inexperienced freelancers to cover most of the county.
"The Tribune has never been a pleasant place to work," says Chicago Reader senior editor and media critic Michael Miner, describing a two-tier system that sounds remarkably like the one governing the Times' downtown and Orange County editions.
"The problem is these suburban editions are out of sight, out of mind," said Miner. "They're expected to fly the flag, not spend resources."
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For much of the 1990s, Times OC employees—like their brethren in Illinois—spent little. In more recent times, staffers have traded in rumors that the paper would either close its OC edition or completely neuter it by publishing a local edition only three times per week, as they do in the San Fernando Valley.
Even if the Tribune boys (yes, they're all males) invest in it, the Orange County edition's marketing-driven slide to the political right and into the hands of local special interests such as the Orange County Business Council and the Irvine Co. will likely continue. Count on more cheesy sell-out journalism, not tough, hard-hitting articles and editorials that expose corrupt local establishment shenanigans.
The outgoing Times owners are members of the Chandler family—trust-fund babies who practice right-wing politics and are motivated not by decent journalism but maximum profit. Like them, the Tribune Co.'s board of directors is a who's who of the bottomline world of multinational corporations. They run the Rand Corporation, the Santa Monica-based think tank with ties to the Pentagon and intelligence agencies; McDonald's Corporation; Commonwealth Edison Company; The First National Bank of Chicago; Gulfstream Aerospace; Kellogg Company; Sears, Roebuck & Co.; CINery Corporation; PepsiCo Inc.; and Burlington Northern Santa Fe Corporation—to name a few. Like Willes, Tribune CEO Madigan—the new Times pilot—isn't a newspaper man at all; he's a former mega-bucks Wall Street mergers and acquisitions executive.
"I think what you will see is a definite shift toward becoming very much a Los Angeles newspaper," Carol Stogsdill, an OC editor in the early 1990s, told the Reg. "They will clarify their mission, they will look to how to cover the suburbs."