The End Times?

There was hope that a journalistic renaissance at the Orange County edition of the Los Angeles Times would follow the gaffe-filled reign of editor Bill Nottingham. But in the 18 months since Nottingham was—to put it delicately—transferred to a less influential position, the Times OC has continued to collapse as a viable threat to The Orange County Register. In fact, history may show that it was under current editor Lennie La Guire, who was touted as the edition's news-savvy savior when she arrived from Times headquarters in LA, that the paper all but formally conceded Orange County to the Register.

Not that La Guire or her corporate superiors and public-relations flacks can bring themselves to admit publicly that the once-vicious but healthy battle over daily news coverage and circulation is today a fading memory. Last month, Times OC management introduced what it calls the “OC supersection, a new way of presenting the close-to-home news that matters so much.” The seven-day-a-week “supersection” basically combines local news with a Register-ish color weather page and entertainment news, a beat previously contained entirely in the Calendar section.

In an Oct. 4 front-page “letter to our readers,” La Guire wrote, “We designed it as a one-stop guide to everything you need to know in OC today, with comprehensive local news and expanded reporting on each day's array of arts, entertainment and leisure activities. . . . We also added more color to our pages and redesigned the section to make it easier to find the information you need.”

On the surface, the moves may have sounded fine. Note, however, that La Guire reported that she expanded coverage of arts, entertainment and leisure (a dubious claim, following arts staff cutbacks)—and not where it's needed most: local news reporting. During the supersection's inaugural week (Oct. 4-8, when you'd think the paper would pull out all stops in its PR push), the supposedly new and improved Times OC was trounced. The Reg carried almost 60 percent more local news stories, 71 stories to 45.

The new “supersection” hasn't improved with age either. On Oct. 31, for example, the Registerpublished 19 local news stories. On the same day, the TimesOC ran an embarrassing five stories.

But a newspaper shouldn't be judged merely by the number of stories it publishes. Reporting quality is also important, and here the Times OC still shines. Janet Wilson, for one, can't be touched in her coverage of the construction and environmental controversies at or near Crystal Cove State Beach. Sadly, Tonnie Katz's Register struggles too often with basic journalism. On Oct. 8, for example, the Reg published a feature about a Brea city councilman without providing the councilman's first name anywhere in the article. With rare exceptions (the courthouse and UC Irvine beats come to mind), if both dailies cover a story, Times reporters often produce the best reported and written account.

That is, of course, if La Guire and her assistants bother to send a reporter to an important local event.

While the Times happily touted its new “extensive” coverage, it missed (and therefore so did its readers) solid stories the Register nailed. To identify just a few: the introduction of Congressman Gary Miller's anti-spam Internet bill, the state Supreme Court's decision on nude clubs in Orange County, a heated community protest concerning government transportation plans for light rail, the conclusion to a probe into alleged wrongdoing by a ranking member of the sheriff's staff, a tax-break windfall for wealthy Newport Coast residents, the formation of a gay club at a local high school, major controversial developments in the plans to build at the historic Dana Point Headlands, and a fascinating account of allegations in court that former LA Police Chief Daryl Gates told a friend to give false testimony.

La Guire, however, may hope that Times OC subscribers don't also subscribe to the Reg and so won't learn what they're missing. She may think her paper's commitment to its ad jingle of “world-class journalism” is satisfied by relocating the arts page and printing bigger, colored weather charts, even while it cuts an already disillusioned news staff. In her Oct. 4 statement, the editor said, “We hope you enjoy the changes.”

The Paper That Can be Bought!

The secretive negotiations to sell the Stern Publishing empire (Village Voice, LA Weekly, Seattle Weekly, Cleveland Free Times, Long Island Voice, Minneapolis/St. Paul City Pages and OC Weekly) are progressing rapidly, corporate president David Schneiderman reported to Weekly staff in an Oct. 28 internal memo. “We received a substantial number of offers from a variety of interested parties,” wrote Schneiderman. “The finalists were chosen this week, and tomorrow begins the next and most important phase of the sales process. We have several bidders for the company who will be coming to New York for management presentations. . . . [I] hope you will be satisfied with the results at the end of the process.”

Schneiderman and other Stern officials have refused to comment on potential buyers. Speculation has banks, Internet companies, members of the Hollywood brat pack, another alternative publishing house such as New Times, and wealthy private investors as interested parties. But Village Voice media columnist Cynthia Cotts recently reported that “the smart money is betting on Stern selling to a mainstream newspaper chain.”

Such a buyer could become a nightmare for Orange County fans of the Weekly. Times Mirror executives—the same ones routinely criticized in this column for trashing the Los Angeles Times—have been rumored as possible suitors. Such an acquisition wouldn't be so absurd. In April, Times Mirror stepped into the world of alternative journalism when it purchased New Mass Media in the Northeast. However, LA and OC Weekly publisher Mike Sigman, a participant in the sale negotiations, has told staff that company owner Leonard Stern prefers to sell to a buyer who understands and appreciates the role of alternative weeklies. That obviously precludes Times Mirror executives, who have in the past hysterically accused this publication of single-handedly jeopardizing the First Amendment by criticizing their paper.

According to Stern officials, final bids are due in November. A deal is expected to be announced in January. The company, which went on the auction block on Sept. 22, is supposedly worth between $50 million and $200 million.

To contact R. Scott Moxley, e-mail him at rs**********@oc******.com">rs**********@oc******.com.

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