‘New’ L.A. Times Lands With Dull Thud: Kinsley Wasn’t Here

A Letter from our L.A. bureau:

In the days following the Hurricane Katrina disaster in New Orleans, the city of Los Angeles was subject to a blackout, an Al Qaeda terrorist threat, and the announcement by our action-hero governor that he’s running for re-election—even as he vetoed a bill legalizing gay marriage, plummeted to a 36 percent approval rating in the polls, and incurred the wrath of the teachers’ and police unions, which ran an endless (and highly effective) series of TV commercials criticizing him for taking the kind of special-interest money he once proclaimed he was “too rich” to take.

In a series of not-altogether-unrelated events, the price of gasoline reached $3.69 a gallon; supplies of bottled water and D batteries dried up on local supermarket shelves; the four-hour live news coverage of the crippled JetBlue landing was a wholesome change from the usual four-hour live news coverage of high-speed car chases; and Warren Beatty resumed his decades-old flirtation with the press about his political aspirations, by attacking that self-same celebrity governor and accusing him of being more interested in public relations than the public welfare.

And in the executive suites of Hollywood, just when they thought they’d survived this miserable summer at the box office, a memo began circulating that surely gave the movie moguls pause: A national survey of young adults—the primary moviegoing audience—found that they don’t like seeing movies in theaters. They prefer to watch them at home, surrounded by friends, where they can eat, talk on the phone and talk back at the screen. (Yes! The same way movie moguls watch movies!) But the larger concern here is whether this harbingers a real sociological change in moviegoing habits—the direct evolutionary result of all those DVD and big-screen-TV sales.

Such is life these days in Los Angeles: Home to movie stars and earthquakes—the city where it’s always Apocalypse Now, Apocalypse Tomorrow or Apocalypse Whenever.

In other mediacentric news, there’s been much talk out here about David Geffen allegedly trying to buy the Los Angeles Times. (I’ll let you insert your own Hollywood-mogul-buys-newspaper joke here. But I’ll suggest the first: Will Geffen take a possessory credit? Will it henceforth be billed as The Los Angeles Times: Un Journal du David Geffen?) And, at the same time, there’s been much speculation about an upcoming article by The New Yorker’s Ken Auletta, reportedly focusing on the paper’s management changes, its new editor and its continuing, precipitous slide in circulation.

Personally, I admire Mr. Auletta. He’s sort of the current Grand Pooh-Bah of media reportage. And I’d never expect him to produce the kind of “hot-tub journalism” that afflicts so many others who parachute in out here: focusing on the desperate, the depraved, the latest iteration of the dry cleaner who would be film mogul. That said, however, I’m more than a little curious to see if he’ll reach the same conclusion that so many locals have drawn: that by chasing The New York Times—trying to be a “national newspaper”—the L.A. Times has lost its way.

Allow me to explain.

Every morning at 5:30 a.m., I’m awakened by the thwack of newspapers being delivered to the block where I’m living in L.A. It’s in a neighborhood called Hancock Park—roughly the equivalent of Bronxville, or Carnegie Hill in Manhattan—where the residents are mainly doctors, lawyers and stockbrokers, with a smattering of show-business trash. Yet of the 20 homes on this block, while four get The New York Times, only three receive the L.A. paper. That’s right: In an upscale, Democrat-voting neighborhood, where every home should get the local paper, the vast majority of them don’t.

When John Carroll stepped down as the editor of the L.A. Times, he boasted about his Pulitzers, complained about the budget cuts demanded by his paper’s corporate parent (the Tribune Company, in Chicago,) and blamed the circulation woes on (among other things) national “Do Not Call” telephone lists. More recently, in a discussion of corporate newspaper ownership, Mr. Carroll groused to NPR’s David Folkenflik that “these papers are like cards in a deck: You shuffle them, you deal them, you fold them, and the meaning of them as an institution in the community seems to have been lost.”

Yet, ironically, that seemed to be precisely the kind of generic McPaper that Mr. Carroll was editing here. He renamed the Metro section “California,” seemingly oblivious to the fact that while L.A., San Francisco, San Diego and Sacramento may exist in the same state, they certainly don’t share the same state of mind. He presided over a book-review section that was arcane and impenetrable. (I know it’s anecdotal, but I used to look at it thinking, “If I’m not reading this, who in hell is?”) He ran a weekly column about life on the Upper West Side of Manhattan that, while well-written, seemed 20 years out of date. Nobody moans that you can’t get a decent bagel out here any more; the Brooklyn Dodgers have been here for half a century. It’s not that Angelenos don’t care about New York, but one had to ask: What value does any of this provide for our readers? What does it have to do with life in L.A.?

And then there was Carroll’s hiring of Michael Kinsley to oversee the editorial pages: a guy who didn’t live here and never moved here full-time. His remake of the weekend opinion section premiered without a single article about Los Angeles; he trivialized the editorial function by referring to it as the “Opinion Manufacturing Division”—seemingly unaware that in L.A., where election ballots run 40 pages long, the L.A. Times serves a vital, and serious, purpose in the community: People walk into the voting booth carrying the L.A. Times’ editorial page. But you’d have to live here, and vote here, to know that.

In short, the paper felt as if it was edited for Bill Keller and the Pulitzer committee rather than my neighbors.

If there was one thing that clarified my thinking here, it was my discovery of LAObserved.com, a Web site run by a former Times editor and writer, Kevin Roderick. In just a few postings a day, he gets to the flesh and blood of the city—the intrigue, the personalities, the who’s-doing-what-to-whom-and-why. Not just Hollywood, but the City Council, the neighborhoods, the arts and architecture. It makes you feel as if you’re part of L.A., in the way the L.A. Times doesn’t.

In truth, there are terrific writers at the L.A. Times, in the Calendar, sports and business sections—along with columnists Dan Neil on cars and Steve Lopez in the Jimmy Breslin–Pete Hamill role. And with each passing day, the paper actually seems to be getting better under the new editor, Dean Baquet—even if you still wouldn’t know, as a reader, about things like the continuing migration of the jewelry business from 47th Street in Manhattan to downtown L.A., or that L.A. may now well be the world’s second largest Korean city after Seoul. (Memo to the L.A. Times assignment desk: Somewhere south of Wilshire Boulevard, in Koreatown, there’s a kingpin who runs the joint. Whether he’s in the mold of Donald Trump, or John Gotti, I’m not sure. But I’m certain he exists. Find him. Write about him.)

There’s nothing wrong with Mr. Baquet’s stated goal of making the L.A. Times “the best newspaper in the country.” But first, he’s got to make it the best newspaper in L.A.