Wednesday, July 18, 2007

Damsel in Distress

Recently, there have been public panels on the big question in town: Can the LA Times Be Saved? The venerable newspaper has a long history of Pulitzer-prize winning reporting on local stories and one of the last foreign desks in Baghdad, but it has struggled in recent years to capture the Internet audience that is being courted more successfully by other mainstream newspapers and has been slow even to add a "technology" section in its masthead. Although quite profitable on paper, at least compared to the return on my humble mutual fund for my U.C. retirement account, the Times has struggled to find a buyer who isn't interested in predatory conglomeration.

I'll admit that although I'm a subscriber, I haven't always been a fan. First, there was the new "faster format" that limited the scope of in-depth stories. Then, as a feminist, I was appalled by the boys-will-be-boys pro-defense profile of the Andrew Luster case in a glossy cover story for the magazine. (Not only was Luster ultimately convicted, but when he realized that his case wasn't going as well as his PR machine had represented it, he jumped bail and became a fugitive from justice. Of course, his mother is still slinging mud at the witnesses against him on this website.)

Lately, things have become much worse, as the Times has faced criticism from bloggers. For example, critical information studies heavy hitter Siva Vaidhyanathan has complained about how the paper produces "boring" and "lazy" stories about intellectual property issues. Based on my own experiences with sloppy reporting on a U.C. Irvine scandal that quotes from websites rather than the actual subjects and does so without any context about who produces a given site (see here and here), I would tend to agree with Siva. And then there's the dogged coverage of the newspaper's woes by a former Times staff writer at LA Observed. Blogger Kevin Roderick knows exactly where the bodies are buried and thus can be much more successful in his highly readable stories than outsiders who produce blogs like the Times/WaPo Watch. Now YouTube video-maker Blunty 3000 has ridiculed the hypocrisy and inaccuracy of the Times.

But somehow I feel like I should do something to save the Times, mostly for three simple reasons.

1) I have nostalgic feelings about the paper, as the daily news I grew up with and cut out current events stories from as a kid.
2) I have trouble waking up in the morning, and -- along with my morning cup of coffee -- I depend on its pages to get my brain working after I get up.
3) My Facebook friend Joseph Menn works there, and if he loses his job, then he can easily beat me in the iLike music challenge.

So, my main suggestion would be to create more linkable, forwardable, or truly interactive content. They don't necessarily need to go the route of The New York Times, which has hired VP pal Ian Bogost's company to make online games that serve as a contemporary form of political cartooning.

Here's my plan of action. First, they need to get beyond the chartjunk that they currently offer as information graphics. Second, they need to create editorials that people would choose to e-mail to friends and co-workers. Again, that "most e-mailed" feature at the NYT is a telling indicator of the Zeitgeist, and it seems to be something that the LA Times just doesn't get. Firing many of their opinion writers in their own version of the Night of Long Knives was a particularly self-destructive move. Finally, they need to do more than just report on social media, they need to be a part of it. It's possible to do good journalism even in the more visual format of the viral video or the interesting flash page. Writers at the Times had to adapt to the faster format. I'm sure this will horrify traditionalists, but could they make content that others would choose to embed in their blogs or pages on social networking sites? Perhaps in defense of their Iraq bureau, they could bring us more information from Iraqi visual culture and give us a more global picture of the world.

It wouldn't be a substitute for in-depth socially-conscious journalism, but it could be a good supplement to it. Perhaps the much forwarded and visually savvy work of Nicholas Kristof at The New York Times is an applicable model.

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Blogger Lupton said...

Have you sent your comments to the LAT? This is such a thoughtful review of their structure. We read the LAT everyday. I really like the Home and Food sections, for the most part, but I use the on-line sections in only the most cursory way -- to grab a photo or print out an article. It would be interesting to engage with my local paper in a more interactive way.

6:16 AM  

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