Teaching Examples

Is the LA Times doing anything right?
January 26, 2007, 3:44 pm
Filed under: future, newspapers, online

From the LA Times story published Wednesday about the newspaper’s new focus on the Web (story by staff writer James Rainey) — some key points that perhaps some others newspapers ought to heed:

Los Angeles Times editor James E. O’Shea “urge[d] The Times’ roughly 940 journalists to throw off a ‘bunker mentality’ and to begin viewing latimes.com as the paper’s primary vehicle for delivering news.”

O’Shea created a new position, “editor for innovation,” and described an “Internet 101” course that “would teach reporters, editors and photographers how to post content on latimes.com.”

(Ahem. They need to learn MORE than merely how to post content.)

O’Shea said that:

… some may have maintained a false sense of security about their industry because of the paper’s continuing high profits, which were estimated for 2006 to be nearly $240 million, before taxes.

An internal committee “produced a scathing report that has been seen by only a few of the newspapers top editors and executives. ‘To put it bluntly,’ the seven-page report found, ‘as a news organization, we are not web-savvy. If anything, we are web-stupid.’”

The report highlighted these shortcomings at the newspaper:

  • Lack of assertive leadership and adequate focus on the website, both inside The Times and at the paper’s parent, Tribune Co.
  • Understaffing. Latimes.com employs about 18 “talented and dedicated” editorial employees, only a fraction of the 200 employees at the Washington Post’s website and the 50 employed by the New York Times’ site.
  • “Creaky” technology that has made it impossible for latimes.com to host live chats between readers and journalists and to let readers customize stock tables or weather reports.
  • Failure to integrate the newspaper’s large news staff into operations at the web, contributing to delays in posting breaking news.

(I think the ideal number for the Web operation might fall in between The Post’s 200 and the NY Times’s 50.)

In addition, in-fighting “between the local management of the website and its overseers at Tribune Interactive in Chicago also hamstrung latimes.com, the report said.”

Even small technological improvements required “long waits for Web technicians in Chicago to ‘build’ the technology.”

(Oh, I cannot even begin to calculate how many times I have seen and heard about that — and not only within the Tribune group.)

I found these stats fascinating:

At the time of the report late last year, latimes.com was the 766th most active website in the world and not in the top 100 in the U.S., according to the tracking service Alexa Internet. That compared to the nytimes.com ranking of 95th in the world and 21st in the U.S. and washingtonpost.com’s rankings of 264th in the world and 54th in America.

Latimes.com users also tend to spend less time on the site than users spend on other top news sites. The 11.9 minute average stay at latimes.com is only half the amount of time users spend on nytimes.com.

But it seems (from the article) that the latest plans to “save the newspaper” by focusing more on the Web are still wrongheaded:

An enhanced foreign page could feature video, photo galleries, graphics and chats with The Times roughly two dozen overseas reporters…. The paper also plans to experiment with pilot projects on “hyper local” coverage in a few, as yet unnamed, communities. Those pages would rely heavily on content such as community calendars, crime statistics, school test scores and neighborhood discussion groups … Such content will be attractive to readers and available at little or no cost “without flooding the zone with reporters,” O’Shea said. The editor emphasized that the reforms will have to be made without additional funding.

Oh, yeah, right. Cheap. That’ll do it. Go cheap. Pile a bunch of public records documents into your site with NO context. I bet that will really draw people in and hold their attention.

And don’t do any new reporting. Oh, heavens, no. Journalism isn’t about reporting at all.

Who is the audience for this Web site? Does the LA Times think the audience is composed of idiots? Have they forgotten that there are a million other Web sites available to everyone?

I’m really glad that the LA Times examined its relationship with the Internet and recognized that improvements are urgently necessary. But so far, they’re not talking about meaningful improvements. They don’t seem to get it.

In other words, the more things change — the more they stay the same.

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5 Comments so far
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The most important aspect of the announcements coming out of the Times is the promotion of Rob Barrett. If being a VP gives Rob the real kind of power to push change the he needs, we will see a great LATimes.com in a year or so.

I’m just not clear that Tribune Interacive is going to let go the reins.

Comment by Howard Owens

mindy what kind of changes would you LIKE to see at the latimes or other papers for that matter?


Comment by Anonymous

The biggest change I would like to see is an examination — from various angles — of who is the audience. Not only the audience you have, but also the audience you want — and the audience you OUGHT to have, as the free press that informs the public, serves as a watchdog, etc.

Take, for example, the LA Times’s idea to provide more international news. Well, I’m very much in favor of better and more complete international coverage. I think Americans need that. However, we need to ask what makes sense for the LA Times.

Los Angeles has one of the world’s largest communities of Iranians outside Iran, for example. I would think coverage of Iran would be a great focus for the LA Times.

California has the U.S.’s largest concentration of Asian Americans. I would think that covering the Pacific Rim and SE and East Asia would be great, both online and in print.

But covering Europe? Maybe the LA Times shouldn’t focus a lot of resources in Europe.

And you can’t neglect the local. Look at the movie “Crash” (I loved that movie). Race issues should be discussed in the LA Times every day. They are a huge part of the fabric of Los Angeles. As the movie shows so well, they are very complicated.

It would take a lot of words to explain how all this could be carried out well both online and in print. My point is, breaking news is the least of their worries — even the least important thing on their plate. But breaking news figured large in their announcement.

There are a hundred things that need doing, but the LA Times appears to be focused — mostly — on a different set of things.

Comment by Mindy McAdams

This says a lot: “At the time of the report late last year, latimes.com was the 766th most active website in the world and not in the top 100 in the U.S., according to the tracking service Alexa Internet. That compared to the nytimes.com ranking of 95th in the world and 21st in the U.S. and washingtonpost.com’s rankings of 264th in the world and 54th in America.”
Alexa is not a good indicator of ranking. The fact that they site it is an indication that even their research is flawed.

Comment by Zach Wise

I agree, Zach — I don’t know anyone who uses Alexa in their browser, so who ARE those people? Yet perhaps the comparison (apples to apples) is telling. Whoever those Alexa users are, they do go to the other two sites in much larger numbers.

Comment by Mindy McAdams

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