“Fit to Print” in Los Angeles

This week, we visited Los Angeles for a series of interviews with former reporters from The Los Angeles Times.  A few of them optimistic about the future of the business, a few of them concerned about the loss of investigative reporting, and each of them angry over the erosion of their former paper, and the ripple affect the Tribune Co. has had over the entire industry.    

For those of you unfamiliar with the Tribune Co.’s involvment in the newspaper industry’s erosion, you will surely be educated when you see “Fit to Print”.  To give you a brief background , the Tribune Co. is the second-largest newspaper publisher in the U.S., controlling ten dailies.  Among them are The Los Angeles Times, The Chicago Tribune, The Hartford Courant, The Orlando Sentinel, The Baltimore Sun, The Morning Call and several others.  Tribune Broadcasting controlls 23 television stations including WGN, WDCW, and a 31% controlling interest in the Food Network.  Tribune Interactive is another subsidary of the compnay and is currently drawing over 20 million unique visitors each month to sites such as Topix.com, Cars.com and CareerBuilder.com (and you wondered why submitting a resume online is so frustrating).  

The cross-ownership between Tribune and the television industry began in 1948 when  WGN-TV in Chicago and WPIX-TV in New York were born.  Throughout the 1980’s and 90’s, the Tribune Co’s reach expanded even further when they acquired the Chicago Cubs baseball team (in one of several family buyouts) from the Wrigley family for $20.5 million in 1981.  From there, the newspaper company was immediately emerged in the entertainment industrty as Tribune Entertainment was launched in 1982.  

When we examine how and why there is so much celebrity ‘news’ covered in ‘journalism’ these days, it’s easy to trace back to the Tribune Co. from over 30 years ago.  Though they certainly were not the only news organization to favor celebrity and entertainment news over hard-hitting investigative reporting, they were certainly pioneers of it.  

Just as so many of the great American institutions have done over the past half-century, Tribune, gave up it’s private owenership of 136 years to transform into a publically traded company in 1983.  From there, the sky was the limt as a loosening of federal regulations restricting television and radio ownership fell by the wayside during the 1990’s.  

Huge profit margins were enjoyed by most all major newspapers during the 80’s and 90’s.  A type of ‘get in and get out’ atmosphere where the sacred wall between the newsroom and business sides of the industry came crashing down.  In 2000, A merger with The Times Mirror Company doubled the size of Tribune.  Within this deal, an $8.3 billion transaction to add more newspapers to the company’s holdings became the largest newspaper transaction in history.  In 2007, Chicago-based investor Sam Zell bought the company for $8.2 billion and witin one year the company was bankrupt due to tremendous debt loads.  In January of 2010 alone, The Los Angeles Times — only one of many papers effected by the bankruptcy — announced that it would shut down it’s printing operations in Orange County and cut an additional 80 jobs.  

Before heading to Los Angeles, the “Fit to Print” crew was prepped to interview various reporters currently holding positions within The Los Angeles Times.  They had each agreed to the interviews (save for two who were waiting to hear more on the project in person).  More than that, I personally reached out to these reporters over the phone and via e-mail, and each of them gave fascinating takes about their concerns, their hopes and ambitions for the future of the paper.  

It’s important to understand the past in order to predict the future of anything.  This remains especially true in the rapidly changing news industry where companies are scrambling to figure out the next business model while still maintaining the traditions of quality journalism from previous eras.  

This same perspective is not held by the current Vice President of Communications with the Times, however, who commented that, “We choose not to take looks back.”  [Referring to previous eras in the paper’s history.  Even the Chandler legacy as I came to find out].  In a 38 minute phone conversation with this PR  head I felt like I was being cornered in a really odd way.  I had reached out to the Times’ PR department to do right by the company in seeking approval to interview the reporters who had already agreed to do them.  I forwarded everything I could on the project, from the teaser trailer to the complete synopsis and lists of people we have interviewed thus far (those including other Tribune Co. staffers ironically).  After roughly 3 weeks of not hearing back from their PR staff, I was finally able to connect to the Communications Vice President I mentioned, who never once asked who I was interviewing (despite my efforts to explain why I had choosen certain reporters based on their local wacthdog roles in the city of Los Angeles).  Instead, I was bombarded with comments such as, “our paper has a set of regulations to follow in order to interview anyone”.  When I asked what the regulations were, she mentioned, “Each time out is different.  Our department reviews all requests through various members who say ‘yes’ or ‘no’ to interviews”.  

‘Great’, I was thinking to myself, as it seemed my request would be reviewed by more than one person who would either greenlight the interviews or not.  

…Not so…

As our incredibly odd conversation continued, I asked who else would be reviewing the material and how the process would work and if I could speak with them.  “I’m Vice President of Communications for the L.A. Times, and I make the decision to pass along information or not.” 

…I think you can see where this is going.

So, long story short, I didn’t get to interview anyone from the L.A. Times’ staff on this trip.  I sent follow-up e-mails to each of the reporters I had reached out to, to tell them what the communications executive was telling me.  I relayed to them that she didn’t want me speaking to anyone.  With a job title like “Vice President of Community Outreach and Initiatives”, I still feel we got the short end of the stick on this one.  

Fortunatley, however, 6 former Los Angeles Times reporters (who each spent over a decade or more with the paper) stepped up and did interviews with us.  Quite eagerly when they caught wind of what was going on.  Several of them, including Henry Weinstein, voiced their concern over the very idea of a journalist having to ask permission to speak to a lowly filmmaker like me.  “I find the very idea completely ridiculous”, Weinstein commented.  

Granted, I am a filmmaker.  The Communications Vice President was simply trying to protect the company’s interests.  And who could blame her?  It’s just her job. She doesn’t have a background in journalism.  But what is concering to me is the fact that these reporters (and several other reporters who have spoken to me confidentially over the phone) have expressed great concern over the business which they are in.  These aren’t gripping rants over meager pay or working conditions, which any employee might complain about.  It has been commentary on public safety issues, stories not being covered, and frustrations over newsroom morale.  

I truly hope more current and former newsroom staffers will step up and voice their concerns and hopes for the future …because this wall of silence which has clouded the newspaper industry for so long shouldn’t stand any longer.  If we are to create any sustainable buisness model in news, it has to be with the bottom line goal of serving the public, not protecting a corporation’s public relations image.

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