Monday, November 13, 2006

Hard Times


I spent Wednesday commiserating.

I commiserated with Republican friends distressed by Democratic victories on election night.

I commiserated with friends at the Los Angeles Times whose immediate futures may be bleaker than the Republican Party.

The Republicans lost the battle because of the war. I guess that "shock and awe" strategy works both ways. But two years from now, the issues that shape the election could be completely different. And so could the outcome.

That is not to understate the enormity of what happened Tuesday night. The Republicans have been in charge of the House since 1994 and ruled the Senate for most of that period. And it ended with an alarming suddenness. Good-bye evangelicals. Welcome back Dixie Chicks.

The people have spoken. But the people's political memory is short. After all, the voters spoke just two years ago, sweeping Bush back into the White House.

And truth be told, the Democratic strategy at this point, especially concerning the war, is just as unclear as the President's. Stay tuned.

Meanwhile, over at the Times, uncertainty also reigns. All you need to know about the Tribune Co.'s stewardship of the paper is that they chose tofire Dean Baquet, the LA Times editor, during election week, usually the most chaotic and stressful time of the year in the news business. This is tantamount to ejecting the pilot on final approach to LAX.

In the meantime, the Tribune folks, who also canned the publisher last month because he objected to further staff reductions, threaten more cuts at the paper at the same time its circulation is plunging. You don't save the Titanic by slicing another hole in the hull. But that seems to be the Tribune business model.

It takes a lot of people to cover an area the size of Southern California and maintain bureaus throughout the U.S. and the world. It also takes a big commitment and a lot of money. The last two are in short supply these days at the Times.

Perhaps it is inevitable. I worked for more than 30 years at the Times, a golden era when, under the leadership of Otis Chandler, the organization made money by the truckload and spent it just as fast.

That is not reality in this business. At another paper I worked for, we taped pencils back to back so we could continue to use them even as they became stubs, thereby delaying replacement costs.

Tribune executives complained that the Times was slow to realize the economic realities facing the business today. There may be some truth to that, a hangover from the free-spending Chandler days.

Even at the storied New York Times, a dissident investor is escalating a showdown, seeking steps that would lessen the Sulzberger family's control over the newspaper company.

Morgan Stanley Investment Management, which owns 7.6 percent of the company's stock and is unhappy with a long slide in its share price, submitted a proposal aimed at giving other shareholders more say in the company's operation and future.

But money is not the only issue in Los Angeles. When the Tribune bought the Times several years back, the consensus among the troops was that the Rancho Cucamonga Quakes had just bought the Dodgers. We both played ball but at considerably different levels.

There was jealousy in Chicago, home base for the Tribune, especially when the Times won a slew of Pulitzer Prizes.

Now, the Trib has replaced a respected editor and publisher with a couple of guys from Chicago who probably needed a map to find the building.

There is a flicker of hope. Billionaire philanthropist Eli Broad and prominent investor Ron Burkle have submitted a bid to buy Tribune Co. But if that doesn't work, the Times will become a shadow of its former self.

And that's a shame, even if you think it is edited by a bunch of old lefties who worship Michael Moore and Ed Asner. That's because the Times lifted the level of coverage of other papers in its circulation area. We'll all be the poorer for its decline.

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