Sat, Jul

Dear LA Times: You Broke It, You Own It


OP|ED - Humpty Dumpty had a great fall.  

Putting Humpty back together again will require us all.  

Who’s going to answer the call? 

City newspapers in their day were economic engines and our town squares. Today, many newspapers are hobbies for billionaires: Rupert Murdoch owns the Wall Street Journal, Jeff Bezos the Washington Post, and Patrick Soon-Shiong the Los Angeles Times. 

Until 2000, the LA Times was owned by a newspaper family, the Chandlers, whose reputation and success inexorably were tied to the fortunes of their city. After several years of disastrous ownership by The Tribune Corporation and then real estate tycoon Sam Zell, Soon-Shiong bought the paper which already was bleeding dollars. He plunged in with his eyes wide open to the challenge of publishing a newspaper in the age of the internet and social media. He believed that he could turn it around. Instead, he has turned it into a financial basket case. The largest paper in the West is teetering on the brink of extinction. 

The industry as a whole is struggling. If it is not to go the way of the telegraph, it needs to be reinvented and democratized. People thirst for authenticity. They want to interact with information and not just have it force fed to them by billionaires. Fundamentally, the business model of newspapers must change. Subscriptions are not enough to sustain a news organization. Gathering the news on a global basis is an expensive endeavor which previously was subsidized by advertising. As newspapers convert to online readership, the price of advertising goes down. Full page ads in the LA Times run about $35,000 a pop. That same ad online will go for a fraction of that amount. 

A city newspaper serves a multitude of vital functions. Newspapers tell us what is happening in our city and the world. They hold government and the private sector accountable. They cater to our interests be they cultural, sports, or the funnies.  

Newspapers invariably have an editorial viewpoint. A separation between opinion and news zealously must be enforced for a paper to have credibility. However, Soon-Shiong now has appointed the same person to edit the editorial pages and overall reporting - stripping away even the flimsy fig leaf that barely covered their blatant bias. Fundamentally, a newspaper's mission is to keep us informed truthfully. The essence of journalistic ethics is to report the story, not to create it. Unfortunately, the Times all too often decides what the story will be before they even speak to the people involved thus undermining their credibility. 

Hold on it gets worse. the New York Times reports that Soon-Shiong demanded executive editor Kevin Merida kill a story about Dr. Gary Michelson, an uber wealthy surgeon, who was locked in dueling lawsuits over a dog bite and threatened to fire the journalist who was working on the story. 

How can a newspaper be an organ of democracy when it stifles all voices but its ownership’s? It is no wonder that the Times commands so little loyalty because it looms over us rather than earnestly trying to represent us. 

The death of the LA Times, a newspaper which once was the paper of record for the West, would be a tragedy. Yes, we can scroll Facebook or read articles online, but one more vital democratic institution supporting a united civic life would be gone. We would be deprived of a baseline of information that we need. We would be even more balkanized than we are now. 

The future of the LA Times depends on the ownership reaching out to the community and giving it what it needs. If Soon-Shiong loves LA but is incapable of turning the paper around, then he has an obligation to step aside and seek a smooth transition to safer hands. Saving the Los Angeles Times is vital to our democracy in California and beyond. 

(Michael Weinstein is the president of AIDS Healthcare Foundation, the world’s largest HIV/AIDS medical-care nonprofit.)