Media: Front page meets bottom line as the LA Times expands

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The Independent Online
The Los Angeles Times is one of America's national institutions. Now fears that the impact of commercialism will turn it upside down have prompted an exodus of top journalists. Tim Cornwell finds out whether their fears for the future are justified

All is not well at the Los Angeles Times, one of America's largest newspapers. In recent weeks, first the publisher, and now the paper's editor have resigned in a hurry, citing no particular plans.

The reason, apparently, is Mark Willes, the former cereal company executive who has compared marketing newspapers to selling a box of Cheerios or bleach. It is not simply that Mr Willes, chief executive of the Los Angeles Times group and now its publisher, has announced his intention of boosting its sales from about one to 1.5 million. It is how he plans to meet this extraordinary target, at a time when US newspaper circulation is declining, that has prompted a minor crisis of confidence.

In recent days, Los Angeles Times journalists have appeared in the pages of rival newspapers, on and off the record, to lament that Mr Willes is crossing one of the most hallowed lines in the profession - between the business and editorial departments.

They have raised the fear that by breaking this "Chinese wall", their journalistic integrity will be compromised, with reporters kowtowing to commercial concerns.

Founded in the late 19th century, the Los Angeles Times was from the start a great promoter of its home city as the "most beautiful inhabited by the human family". The paper still has a provincial touch, with many local editions, but it has evolved, just as California has. It is the largest metropolitan daily behind the New York Times and has an editorial staff of about 1,000, with no serious rival on the West Coast.

In the last eight years, it has won four Pulitzer Prizes, in part by throwing its resources at earthquake and riot. Circulation, however, has slipped in the last five years. Mr Willes now wants editors of each section of the paper to join what have been dubbed "vision meetings" with advertising and business managers on how to reach new readers, particularly women and the growing Hispanic community in Southern California. Frequently- held polls will find out what the readers want.

Mr Willes' plans for a special section for Latino readers provoked a minor revolt on the grounds it would ghettoise the news, and 100 journalists signed a letter calling it "offensive". The reorganisation apparently prompted the departure of long-time editor Shelby Coffey.

One the one hand, Mr Willes, 56, is optimistic on the future of the newspaper business, which is being squeezed by television and the Internet. "They are such remarkable value, they are convenient, they are user-friendly," he told The Independent.

Since he became chief executive of the Times Mirror Group, which includes seven US newspapers but has the Times as its flagship, share prices have tripled over three years. He has appointed a Pulitzer Prize-winning former foreign correspondent, Michael Parks, as his new editor.

But he rapidly earned the nickname "Cereal Killer" after rounds of cuts and lay-offs. And the hard-nosed business interests of a Utah native appear to have clashed with the culture of American journalism, which prides itself on professionalism and integrity, sometimes at the price of long-windedness.

"He's just breaking rules right and left and Wall Street seems to be extremely happy and the journalism community ranges from uncomfortable to horrified," said one Times staffer. "One analogy that people have been using is that he wants to move very fast but we don't know where."

In his interview, Mr Willes sounded mildly dismayed by the furore. He had been prepared for bad press, but not the "amount and relentlessness" of the coverage, he said. He was offended also by the implication that only long-serving journalists possessed moral backbone. He had been a newspaper junkie all his life, he said, though he was only hired by Times- Mirror after a head-hunter had approached him.

"It's like selling bleach in the sense that if you can help convince the consumer that you have something exceptionally useful and valuable, you can sell more," he said. "On the other hand, newspaper isn't at all like bleach, and that's one of the things that attracted me to this industry."