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Tuesday, Sep 26, 2023

MEDIA—LA Times Cuts Valley News in Format Change

If the editors and the yet-to-be-named new publisher of the Daily News are listening carefully, they just might hear the sound of opportunity knocking. Again. The Los Angeles Times, bought by the Chicago-based Tribune Company last year, appears to be rethinking its love affair with community journalism and putting the emphasis back on regional coverage. That means changes to the way Valley businesses are covered as well. And those changes, some say, present an excellent opportunity for the Daily News to boost circulation and advertising revenue. “We’ve not seen movement that the Daily News is going in and picking up where the local Times is leaving off,” said Cynthia Rawitch, chairwoman of the Cal State Northridge journalism department, “but this would be a perfect opportunity for them to do so.” Recent L.A. Times changes that affect the San Fernando Valley include renaming the sections previously called “The Valley” as “California.” A regular weekly package of stories spotlighting Valley-based business was axed. So too was a regular Valley business column by Karen Robinson-Jacobs and, although more pages have been added to the section, Valley news stories now share space with state and regional stories. Jeff Hall was the first president of the Times Valley edition from 1989 to 1991and played an integral part in the re-launch of the edition as the paper stepped up its efforts to compete with the Daily News. He now is president and publisher of the Brentwood Media Group, which publishes four local monthlies. Hall said the recent changes mark one of many attempts over the years by the L.A. Times to rethink its position as a community or regional paper. He said the L.A. Times probably won’t pull back on its coverage of Valley business stories, but they will be repackaged and are not as likely to be given strong play in the paper’s regular business section. “I think what the Times has done for years is make a real strong effort of putting up an appearance of being a local paper, but never really quite managed to pull it off,” said Hall. He said the L.A. Times launched a full-throttle attack on the Daily News in the late 1980s, just prior to an equally aggressive campaign to trounce the Orange County Register, which gave birth to the Times’ Orange County edition. “The hope at that time was that we were going to become much more competitive at the local level with the Daily News,” said Hall. “And it became really something of a battle royal.” “It was an extremely competitive situation and people were taking it very seriously,” said Hall. “Every percentage shift in ad revenue or circulation shift was either great cause for celebration or not, depending on what happened. But they (L.A. Times executives) were just in a constant debate over what they wanted to be when they grew up.” Repeated calls to the Daily News in preparation for this story went unanswered. Neither current Publisher Ike Massey, who is leaving his post in June, nor Editor David Butler would speak to the Business Journal. Still a Valley presence The L.A. Times Valley edition newsroom in Chatsworth is still up and running, but Times officials refused to say how many of the paper’s 1,200 editorial staffers work there. Although the paper’s business editor, Bill Sing, insists the L.A. Times will cover Valley business news, even he said the paper can no longer afford to venture long and deep into local issues. “The Times is not going to be able to go down to such a local level like the Daily News, but at the same time I think we will give readers a superior view of the whole region,” Sing said. Rawitch said she thinks there will be some fallout from the pullback on local coverage, even if the L.A. Times prints a superior regional product. “In the long run, do the changes mean there will be less local news? It appears so,” said Rawitch. “Will people be unhappy? Yes. I would think people want to hear about their local news. I really do.” Rawitch agreed that the changes in the L.A. Times should be getting the attention of the Daily News. But whether they will act on those changes is still anyone’s guess. The L.A. Times spent millions on the launch of the “Our Times” weekly editions, the most recent effort in the paper’s foray into the local communities that began after the Los Angeles riots in 1992. Those sections were eliminated shortly after the Tribune Co. took over. But the paper spent millions on focus groups and media consultants before launching the sections. And what did they learn? “All of our marketing research told us that whoever produced the local stuff was going to win out,” said Hall. “That’s where you can distinguish yourself. But I think that what the Times has found over the years is they are very good at doing the big stuff, but not the smaller things. They just don’t think that way. And I’m sure the Daily News people have figured that out.” Or not. Started from scratch The Daily News, which was actually started as an automotive “green sheet” by the Tribune Co. in the 1970s, typically sets aside three to four pages for what it calls its Local/Regional & State page, which does include Valley-specific stories. Brian Steffens runs a Novato-based media consulting firm called Communications Strategies and Solutions. He also happens to be a former news editor for the Times’ Orange County edition. He said the L.A. Times sent the Orange County Register into combat mode when it decided to marshal its own army of reporters to cover the area. Instead of putting its tail between its legs, the Register came back with fists flying, forcing the L.A. Times to pump even more capital into its O.C. offensive and the war going on back in the Valley. As a result of the Register’s response, the L.A. Times upped the ante in its Orange County battle as well as in the San Fernando Valley, fearing it might lose market share there as well. He also said there was serious talk about doing the same in San Diego in the late 1980s. “They couldn’t make it work economically,” Steffens said. “So they continued to throw money into Orange County and the San Fernando Valley because the Register was giving them a fit and they didn’t want the Daily News to come back as strong as the Register did.” Steffens said the rising cost of newsprint and manpower are likely the driving force behind the recent format changes at the L.A. Times. “To be micro-local you have to have a lot of people on the street and you have to put out a lot of newsprint, and those are big costs,” he said. In support of those changes, however, Steffens said the L.A. Times may finally be getting over its identity crisis and be content to now let the local papers shine while they focus on the bigger picture. “They’ve got to concentrate on what they do best and there is a value proposition in being the authoritative news source of Southern California,” he said. Steffens said the Daily News ought to take its cue from the L.A. Times and figure out what it does best. “The Daily News should find out what’s unique about the Valley, grab a hold of that and then commit to being the authoritative source,” said Steffens. “It’s going to have to find some things that they can say they own.” Bill Gloede, group editor of Mediaweek and Editor & Publisher magazines in New York, agreed that money is typically behind any newspaper decision to downscale local coverage. “No major metropolitan newspaper can cover local news, business or otherwise, and make a profit,” said Gloede. “There really is no such thing as a new idea. So the L.A. Times is going back to what it does best, and that’s being the great regional paper. And if you are going to be a great regional paper, you can’t cover school board meetings.”

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