Shriveling advertising revenue, circulation death spirals, rounds of layoffs, bankruptcies—it’s hard to read a story about the newspaper industry in Southern California these days that isn’t a dirge of doom and gloom or at least a tragicomedy. Local radio and television news stations seem to be doing better, but they’re under financial pressure, too. Cue the rending of garments and gnashing of teeth. But, as the Byrds and Ecclesiastes know, with every time to die, there is a time to be born. In advance of the Zócalo event, “What Kind of Newspaper Does L.A. Deserve?”, we asked three Southern California journalists what is missing from L.A.’s media landscape and what kind of outlet (real or imagined) we need to fill the gap.
I don’t mean to blame the victim here, but what’s missing from L.A.’s media landscape is the general reader.
When I started as editorial page editor at the Pasadena Star-News 26 years ago, and for the dozen years I spent as its editor, our paper, along with the L.A. Times, was on almost every driveway in my Pasadena neighborhood as I went for my morning run. The morning driveway check today shows none of my immediate neighbors get our paper anymore; a few still get the L.A. Times; a very few more, The New York Times and Wall Street Journal. My driveway is the only one for miles with three plastic-wrapped dailies. How can they go without the wonders that are always inside there?
Of course many are reading our mainstream papers online, and that’s great. The name of the company that operates our Los Angeles News Group now, Digital First, says it all, with great hope. The editorial board of our seven papers, of which I am a part, is proud to post instant opinions on the news of the day at all our papers’ websites.
But I also edit our papers’ letters to the editor each morning, and I can say that essentially all of them come from readers older than myself, and I am no longer young.
So, go ahead, readers—check in online and in print with your areas of pinpoint interest (me, I read The Surfer’s Journal website). But the mainstream Los Angeles County dailies, online and in print, are the only places where you’ll find complete, unbiased, highly local coverage of crucial political and social issues with vigorous analysis.
Young people, general readers, if you’re interested in being a part of the conversation that is our democracy, jump into the swim.
Larry Wilson is a columnist for and member of the editorial board of the Los Angeles News Group.
Los Angeles needs more narrative storytelling, the kind that plunges you into the worlds of real characters in true stories, makes you feel like you are in their heads and hearts, and makes you hold your breath to find out what happens next. I have always admired the narrative storytelling from the now-defunct Los Angeles Times Sunday magazine, as well as the Column One section on the front page. For many years, I kept file folders of stories from each journalist I admired who wrote in-depth pieces for these sections (Richard E. Meyer, Barry Siegel, J.R. Moehringer). When I left the Times in 2009, I feared for the future of literary journalism in an era of severe cutbacks.
Luckily, the last three years have seen a bloom of impressive narrative journalism coming from digital publications like Kindle Singles, Byliner, The Big Roundtable, Matter, and others. Many of these outlets are based in New York and have a national focus, but the songs of Los Angeles are growing in volume. Recently, there was an engaging piece from The Atavist about a man who tried to overthrow the Cambodian government from Long Beach, and a gripping Buzzfeed story about a 10-year-old in Riverside who killed his Nazi dad. The feature story website Narratively (where I contribute as a Los Angeles editor) is now publishing regular pieces from L.A., such as Jocelyn Stewart’s “Grief Has No Deadline.” And on the horizon is the launch of The California Sunday Magazine, which will be included as an insert into many California newspapers.
The Internet has long been condemned as the enemy of the mainstream media. But in this case, a digital revolution is creating opportunities for narrative journalism to stretch its muscles.
Erika Hayasaki is the author of The Death Class: A True Story About Life (Simon & Schuster). She is an assistant professor in the literary journalism program at University of California, Irvine, which is holding symposium on narrative journalism in the digital age on April 10.
What’s missing from the Los Angeles media landscape isn’t something that has to be invented, it’s already exists and is in plain sight: the Los Angeles Times.
When I started reading the L.A. Times as a kid in a semi-rural corner of San Diego County, the newspaper was in the midst of a golden age, cosmopolitan, prosperous, expanding, self-confident, rivaling The New York Times for scoops, surfing from one journalistic triumph to another. I know the L.A. Times can’t match the depth of its old reporting or throw as many reporters at a story. And I do think the paper needs to innovate—perhaps it could take a cue from Britain’s Guardian newspaper, which has adapted to new technologies and readership habits and become something of a digital journalism juggernaut. The Times should also make a more serious and sustained attempt to enhance its storytelling through audio and video. It needs to develop a new sense of journalistic mission and repair the damage that’s been done to it over the past decade because of budget cuts, rotten owners, and a growing disconnect from the city it covers.
But even downsized, wounded and hungry for ad dollars, the L.A. Times still regularly breaks stories online and broadcast media don’t or can’t. The paper also still sets the news agenda for the city, with other outlets poaching its stories. There are many superb blogs and online journalism ventures that I read regularly, and it’s fashionable to bash “old media,” but is there anything in the completely digital realm that matches the power and expansiveness of a metropolitan daily? Are any of them ready to take the place of a newspaper like the Los Angeles Times when it comes to reporting consistently the news that matters with an old-fashioned sense of civic duty?
Saul Gonzalez is a producer and reporter for public radio station KCRW and a contributing correspondent for PBS. He was formerly a producer and reporter for KCET and the Los Angeles producer for public television's NewsHour with Jim Lehrer.