The morning after Barack Obama was elected US president, queues began to form at the offices of the Los Angeles Times.
With readers eager to get their hands on a piece of history, the newspaper’s print run was extended and an extra 300,000 copies of the November 5 edition were sold. Days later, entrepreneurial salesmen were seen hawking the election paper at city barber shops and on street corners. After a prolonged slump, the LA Times was suddenly very much in vogue.
But the election looks like providing only a brief fillip. Tribune Company, which owns the LA Times and other titles such as the Baltimore Sun and Chicago Tribune, on Monday filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection and has appointed Lazard to advise it on restructuring $12bn of debt.
Tribune is controlled by Sam Zell, a Chicago-based real estate billionaire who bought the group last year in a highly leveraged $8.2bn deal. Its plight has caused great anxiety at the LA Times and in southern California, where the newspaper’s problems are discussed with almost as much frequency as the city’s infamous traffic congestion.
With annual interest payments of almost $1bn to meet and advertising revenues falling more quickly than anticipated, Mr Zell has been frantically trying to cut costs at the LA Times. Once America’s most profitable title, it has been hit by an exodus of readers to
free internet news sources.
Monday to Friday sales have fallen almost 25 per cent in the past decade to about 740,000.
Classified advertising, once the bedrock of its business, has all but disappeared, having migrated to the internet and websites such as Craigslist.
Yet its problems run deeper than the commercial struggles common to other titles. After 120 years under the control of the powerful Chandler family, the LA Times has undergone a series of cultural and structural shifts that current
and former employees say threaten its status as a powerful voice for southern California.
Part of this is because of Mr Zell. His blunt style and willingness to appoint radio and TV executives to important positions at his newspapers have alarmed staff at the LA Times. This summer protesters hung a huge banner proclaiming “Zell Hell: Take back the LA Times” from the top of its parking garage.
However, even Mr Zell’s critics agree the paper had become bloated, partly because of its near-monopolistic grip on the huge Los Angeles market. At the beginning of the decade, it employed close to 1,300 people, which is a lot for a paper with no national distribution.
Still, the speed of cuts implemented first by Tribune, which bought the title in 2000, and more recently by Mr Zell, has bewildered an organisation that enjoyed decades of stability under the Chandlers.
Its last three editors quit in successive years in protest against cost-cutting while almost 250 jobs have been shed in the past 12 months, reducing editorial staff to about 740. More anguish was caused by the recent merger of its Washington bureau – an important symbol of the paper’s independence and national aspirations – with the Washington bureau of the Zell-owned Chicago Tribune.
“It’s all about Chicago taking control,” says one Tribune employee who opposes the move. He adds that the paper can no longer consider itself one of the “big four” US titles (the others being the New York Times, Washington Post and Wall Street Journal).
“It means the LA Times is the largest regional paper in the US without its own Washington bureau.”
As the dominant publication in the most populous and prosperous US state – a state often viewed as a country unto itself – the LA Times has always had clout that distinguished it from other US metropolitan papers, partly because of a vast circulation, which in its heyday was more than 1m.
Its golden age was the 1960s when Otis Chandler was publisher. He opened its first Washington bureau and expanded international coverage while investing in marketing and promotion.
But its contribution to southern California life has been on the wane since it was acquired by Tribune, according to Kevin Roderick, a former LA Times editor and writer who now publishes LA Observed, a news and media website.
The paper used to have a “unique relationship” with the city, he says.
“During the 20th century as Los Angeles grew into a powerful city, the LA Times became a powerful paper.” But he adds that it has scaled back local coverage and is also retrenching internationally.
“Now it’s going in a different direction. Los Angeles is becoming a truly world city but the LA Times, which at its peak had more foreign correspondents than the New York Times, is withdrawing from almost all
Russ Stanton, the LA Times editor, and Eddy Hartenstein, its publisher, declined to comment. However, Mr Stanton has said in other interviews the paper needs to beef up its local coverage, as has Mr Zell.
A spokesperson for the paper says it is “focused on being the number one source of news and information in southern California”. She points to a substantial rise in visits to the LA Times website.
Yet critics say the internet cannot replace the LA Times’ vital civic role. “When the Chandlers owned it the paper was the most influential thing in town,” says Frank Gilliam, dean of the UCLA School of Public Affairs. “Since then it has lost its connection with southern California.”
Two weeks after the election, a salesman offered Mr Gilliam a copy of the November 5 LA Times for $5. “It reminded me of how important newspapers can be,” he says, ruefully.
“But it’s almost as if they have become museum pieces.”