Observations on the Los Angeles Times

Folks may have realized by now that I’m a true news junkie. For me, reading the news online is the slice of pickled ginger between bites of sushi: it clears my mind as I read these mind-numbing documents I read. I monitor lots of papers, from the small (Moorpark Acorn) to the local (Daily News, Daily Breeze), to the big Nationals (LA Times, NY Times, Washington Post). I mention this because today’s Los Angeles Times has a very interesting article on a new “web” strategy they are embracing.

Consider, for a minute, the print newspaper industry. The companies have to pay for paper, ink, printing, delivery…. and their network of reporters and news services. The money for this comes to a small extent from subscriptions, but even more so from advertising: especially those big splashy full page ads the car dealers and department stores place.

Today, print newspaper readership is declining. More and more folks are turning to the web for their news. The industry is recognizing this and enhancing their web product. The LA Times web product has lagged behind. There have been many reasons for this:

  • Lack of assertive leadership and adequate focus on the website, both inside The Times and at the paper’s parent, Tribune Co.
  • Understaffing. Latimes.com employs about 18 editorial employees, only a fraction of the 200 employees at the Washington Post’s website and the 50 employed by the New York Times.
  • “Technology that has made it impossible for latimes.com to host live chats between readers and journalists and to let readers customize stock tables or weather reports.
  • Failure to integrate the newspaper’s large news staff into operations at the web, contributing to delays in posting breaking news.The result is that the paper’s reports often are listed below those of other news organizations when users perform topic searches.
  • Clashes of direction between the web pages top editors.
  • Fights between the local management of the website and its overseers at Tribune Interactive in Chicago–even small technological improvements required long waits for Web technicians in Chicago to build the technology.

So how is the Times addressing this? In mid-February, the paper plans to roll out a new Travel website that will focus on Southern California and allow users to book trips. A “Calendarlive” site, an extension of the Times Thursday Calendar Weekend print edition, will be designed as a destination for personal entertainment choices such as restaurants, movies, theater, concerts and clubs. An enhanced foreign page that could feature video, photo galleries, graphics and chats with The Times roughly two dozen overseas reporters. They also plan to experiment with pilot projects on “hyper local” coverage in a few, as yet unnamed, communities that would rely heavily on content such as community calendars, crime statistics, school test scores and neighborhood discussion groups. They believe that such content will be attractive to readers and available at little or no cost. They want these reforms to be made without additional funding.

They also plan on enhancing the print edition. Specifically, the paper plans in the fall to go to a smaller, 48-inch-wide format. An attendant “phased” redesign will be rolled out through 2007 and will “question and challenge every section of the newspaper.”

So what do I think of this?

First and foremost, they have to get over this inferiority complex they have with the New York Times. Everytime they revamp, they move closer to the NY Times… and they lose more readers. They forget that if folks wanted the NY Times, they would subscribe to the NY Times.

As for the web changes: they are clueless (as are most papers). For the most part, people will not pay for news content, especially if they can get that content elsewhere. Notice how little on the NY Times site is “Times Select”. A content subscription model doesn’t work well when CNN.com is out there. So, you have to depend on advertising. Yes, you can get more eyeballs, but you can’t make the ads obtrusive. This limits who advertises. You won’t have the big spreads from the local supermarkets, the department stores, and the car dealers… and those are what bring in the cash. I don’t think their web initiative will bring them more income. But they’re not alone in trying to milk the web. la_observed is reporting that the Sacramento Bee is establishing a premium service (read $499/year, yes, no decimal point) that gives subscribers early access to Bee stories, plus some email alerts and exclusive columns and blogs. They predict it won’t succeed, and I agree.

So what is the right model? I just don’t know.