Zell is not your problem. You are.

A bunch of current and former reporters at the LA Times are suing the new boss, Sam Zell, “accusing him of recklessness in the takeover and management of the newspaper’s parent, the Tribune Company,” says the NY Times.

Journalists are such a whiny bunch, always complaining, constantly blaming someone else for their problems. But friends, as the Rev. Wright would say, the chickens are coming home to roost.

Newspapers and newspaper companies are about to die. The last remaining puddles of auto, home, job, and retail advertising are about to be sucked down the drain thanks to the economic crisis and credit is about to be crunched into dust. So any newspaper or news company that has been teetering will fall. If Fannie Mae, Freddie Mac, Lehman Brothers, and AIG can fall, so can a puny newspaper empire — and there’ll be no taxpayer bailout for them. When this happens, will it be Sam Zell’s fault? Hardly.

The Times veterans should not be suing Zell. They should be suing themselves. Oh, I, too, am angry at the state of newspapers in America but I’m angry at the right people. The LA Times’ problems — like those of other papers — were caused by by decades of egotistical and willfully ignorant neglect by the owners, managers — and staff — at the paper.

When more than one editorial regime had the hubris to think that they should turn the Times into a national – even international – paper, opening bureaus all over the globe and insisting on writing every commodity news stories under their own bylines while letting local coverage suffer, did you protest, litigators? No, those bylines and bureaus were yours.

When the paper was the most overwritten, under-edited consumer of wasted ink and paper in the United States of America, boring its audience with jump after jump of self-indulgent text and forcing readers to flee for TV, did you get out your pencils and start trimming and tightening? No.

When the paper failed even at covering its own hometown industry, did you jump in to fill the void? No.

When the internet came, did you all – every one of you as responsible, smart journalists, on your own – leap to get training in audio and video? Did you immediately hatch new ways to work collaboratively with the vast public of bloggers able and willing to join in local journalism? Not that I saw.

When the link economy emerged, enabling papers to find new efficiencies by saving resources long spent on commodity news so they could concentrate on their real mission — local — did you grab the opportunity by the horns and beg to cover the hell out of Encino? No.

When the Chandlers and the erstwhile Tribune management did not invest sufficiently in building new products online and driving audience, advertisers, and resources to it and to the future, did you protest? Did you sue? No.

You bear your share of responsibility for the paper’s past and thus its present. Whether Sam Zell is the guy to get the paper to the future, I have no idea. But I can look at your stewardship and see the results.

Want to see who’s to blame for the state of your paper? Get a mirror.

  • http://www.subhub.com Evan Rudowski

    Hello Jeff,

    Well said, and your post definitely struck a nerve for me as I started my career at Newsday, owned by LA Times parent Times Mirror, and spent eight years there, from 1987 to 1994, working on some of their earliest online services.

    In the early days were were crammed into an old broom closet about as far from the newsroom as you could get, and our nascent efforts were of little interest except for a curious few. But to Newsday’s credit, they had an Electronic Information Services department more than twenty years ago!

    In the early 1990s things got sexier as Times Mirror did a corporate deal with Prodigy (remember them?) to launch local online services at all of its properties. This trumped a deal we were trying to do locally at Newsday (and would have preferred) with AOL, as the Atlanta Journal-Constitution had recently done. Nevertheless the Prodigy deal was a forward-looking move if not on the right platform.

    At Newsday itself there were some fantastic people who cared about getting online early on. Foremost among these was Howard Schneider, the 35-year veteran of Newsday who was its managing editor for 18 years and finally its editor (he is now the founding dean of the School of Journalism at SUNY Stony Brook). Howie in the early 1990s started a cross-company committee to build a vision for what he called “Electronic Levittown” which would pioneer digital media services in the same way the original Levittown pioneered suburbia.

    As a nervous 20-something I was privileged to be invited to join that committee and it remains one of the best experiences of my career. Sadly, the resulting proposal did not win the backing of Times Mirror corporate for full implementation — that would have been fun. But under Howie’s leadership, along with the support of then-publisher Bob Johnson and some great people in the newsroom and elsewhere, the vision percolated throughout the newspaper.

    Suddenly after the Prodigy deal our renamed Electronic Publishing group was hot and we started attracting some of the best and brightest at the newspaper, both in senior stature and young talent. And there were other really good people at Times Mirror too — like Hillary Schneider, then of the Baltimore Sun and now a top Yahoo.

    I guess my point is that newspapers, at least in my experience, were not devoid of initiative or interest in digital media. But was even this enough? Local initiative, like Howie’s “Electronic Levittown,” could not overcome corporate mandates, groupthink and reflexive risk aversion. Nor could it overcome the inertia of many old-timers, as you rightly point out (I remember my horror at being scolded one night at a theatre event by the legendary Stanley Asimov who overheard me talking about my job and turned around to angrily tell me that digital media would never amount to anything — and he had once been in charge of new technologies at the newspaper).

    And digital media could never take precedence over the main newspaper business which was paying the bills. It could never be more than secondary. This is the achilles heel for traditional media in whatever form — new media are secondary for them, whereas they are primary for their hungry young competitors. Can traditional media ever prevail in such circumstances? The answer seems to be no.

    Kind regards,
    Evan Rudowski

  • Walter Abbott

    Jeff,

    I agree with your assessment. However, the employees of Tribune Co. do not deserve to have their retirement fund raided and used as piggybank by Sam Zell or anyone else.

    And I think that’s exactly what’s happening. Over a year ago when the plan was announced that the Tribune ESOP was to own the stock of Tribune, I emailed and phoned every business reporter I could think of and suggested they take a look. Save Theo Francis, then of the Wall Street Journal, and Nikki Finke, no one chose to write about it.

    I suspect it’s too late now – the money’s gone, replace with worthless Tribune stock. And I think Zell knew what he was doing. There will be lots of stories written and lots of hand-wringing about employees screwed out of their retirement by corporate raiders.

    After covering the Enron stories and others, it is simply amazing that business reporters stood by and let it happen to themselves.

  • Christian

    “Journalists are such a whiny bunch, always complaining, constantly blaming someone else for their problems.”

    Jeff, this is not helpful, insightful, or correct. It also buys into the old, and very bad habit of confusing the medium with the job. Sometimes you are as fussily insistent that journalism is newspapers as are the shambling newsroom Luddites you target — or perhaps target is not the right word, as your aim here is far from selective.

  • John Mecklin

    Jeff

    I don’t think I have ever read a less germane comment on a lawsuit by anyone alleging to be any kind of journalist. If what is alleged in the lawsuit is true — that employee funds were misused in a flim-flam game that will make Sam Zell and former Tribune managers huge money while costing the employees most or all of the stock-option earnings they amassed over decades — the defendants have violated their fiduciary duties and some may even have criminal liability.

    To conflate that specific allegation of egregious wrongdoing with some overarching general critique of how the newspaper business has been run in recent decades is — how can I put this gently? — shockingly misguided and legally illiterate. One has nothing to do with another. The American car business has been run poorly, too. Does that mean it’s OK if auto company management steals from the employees while the company is losing money?

    I am not expressing an opinion on the validity of the lawsuit. The facts will show what they eventually show. Either Tribune managers violated their fiduciary duties to employees and their stock-option plan, or they didn’t.

    I am saying that I expect more reasoned argument from this blog.

    John Mecklin
    Editor, Miller-McCune magazine

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  • Terrence

    If Entertainment Weekly fails (which is highly likely), is it because its founder and original editor (what would be you, Jeff) is fundamentally a dull, uncreative guy? Should the current staff be made to suffer because of your mistakes?

    Just wondering.

  • http://blog.angelaconnor.com Angela Connor

    You have left me speechless with this one Jeff and with mouth hanging open. I see you are being somewhat blasted here for the criticism, but I think I understand your assessment and the point you’re attempting to convey and drive home. I experienced only 6 years of resistance in the newspaper industry as a multimedia and convergence champion but I quickly learned that it was so deeply rooted in the industry and that my little division was up against a monster of monumental stature. Sure we threw rocks at the beast, but they barely touched his ankles. So maybe the monster has come home to roost.

  • Stephen K. Mack

    Jeff,
    Read and commit to memory John Mecklin’s post.He states with eloquence and brevity the problem,as it is! Your piece could only appear on the the web: no respectable newspaper would print it. Or, maybe you could send it to Bill O’Riley to foment some “elitist bashing” fun!

  • Guy Love

    Two decades to figure out that internet thing … and the traditional media newspaper guys still don’t get it. I feel like I am watching survivors on a raft being sucked down by a maelstrom, being offered lifeline after lifeline, and they won’t take it because they are to busy discussing why they don’t need a lifeline. Technology and time march forward while news monopolies of the bygone days hit the dustbin. You are correct, they only have themselves to blame.

  • http://www.buzzmachine.com Jeff Jarvis

    John Mecklin,
    I read the complaint. They complain that the book review was cut back. How is that a financial crime against them? I have long thought the LA Times is overrated and the responsibility for the product lies with those who made it over the years.

    Stephen K. Mack,
    Well, isn’t it a wonderful thing that we no longer need to rely on a monopoly newspaper to be heard.

    Terrence,
    EW’s fate is the responsibility of EW’s staff, yes. I have said often that if I started it today, it would not be a magazine but would be a community of taste on entertainment.

    Christian,
    Fair enough about my generalized characterization. I did extrapolate. But as I just said, the complaint treats closing a bureau or cutting back a book review as a crime. It’s whiny. And I am seeing too much complaining and too little innovating in the industry. That is the real crime.

  • John Mecklin

    Jeff

    Did you read the complaint before, or after, writing your post?

    I know that sounds a little snarky, but you deserve it. This is a serious lawsuit filed by quality lawyers, and it alleges facts that, if true, constitute (at least) serious breaches of civil law. Picking out one tiny factoid from a lengthy lawsuit alleging multiple violations of law and reducing it to absurdity doesn’t back up your original post in any intellectually honest way.

    If I were you I’d just admit to a brain fart, apologize and go on my way. Everyone goes off half-cocked sometimes, and you certainly have here.

  • http://darleeneisms.la darleene

    I don’t think this was half-cocked. Jeff has a very good point about newspapers not jumping online fast enough. That’s why its now necessary to partner up with companies like Zillow (for real estate), but even that’s not enough. Newspapers didn’t see soon enough that free and simple (Craigslist, anyone?) was going to be the model that the Internet was built on. (and maybe that statement is a little too sweeping, but that’s how it looks from my cheap seat.)

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  • http://www.beatcanvas.com Brett Rogers

    Why do we trust journalists to cover economics? I wouldn’t call them subject matter experts.

  • Isaac

    Jeff’s critique of the news business is right on. I just wish he followed his own rules and linked to better coverage of the merits of this particular lawsuit. This lawsuit isn’t about cutting book reviews it’s about whether the employee stock ownership plan was abused and whether employees’ retirement funds were wrongfully managed.

  • http://blog.agrawals.org/category/journalism Rocky

    @Walter is right on.

    Unfortunately, too many journalists don’t understand the basics of business and economics. They “follow the money” when it comes to politics, but not as much when it comes to business. The dot-com bubble and the housing bubble were in part perpetuated by journalists quoting the analyst hype machines. (Analysts who had conflicts of interest too numerous to mention.)

    When the Tribune deal was announced, I took one look at the terms and saw that employees were getting royally screwed.

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  • http://robertdfeinman.com/society robertdfeinman

    Doonesbury is running a series where the long time WaPo reporter Rick gets laid off in a cut back of investigative reporters.

    It will be interesting to see Trudeau’s take on the topic. Sometimes the best social criticism comes from the most unlikely places.

  • Stephen K. Mack

    Jeff,
    You have every right to have your say in the matter.This is your web site, and the beauty of the internet is the diversification of opinion, that newspapers have had a monopoly on for too many years, has been broken. That is not in dispute: nor is the blindness of the the old thinking that seems to dominate newspapers,or the people who run them, or report for them. What is in dispute is your whole critique that begins with an approach to the the subject that reeks of a “political no-nothing” approach to an “elitist press”. You sound like a caricature of a right wing talk show host. Question: Did Sam Zell use the ESOP funds in his deal? Jeff, you really need to read and take to heart what John Mecklin has written. We all need our friends to keep us on the right path.He is your friend!

  • jim cunningham

    A bold prediction, that riff about newspapers being about to die. You might want to re-read your McLuhan, especially the part about new media not replacing old, just canniblazing their content. A clip-and-save column, for sure.

  • http://www.buzzmachine.com Jeff Jarvis

    Mecklin,
    I just said I read the suit. Quality lawyers? Isn’t that an oxymoron?

  • Terrance

    The San Francisco Chronicle, as one example, or the Miami Herald, or the Houston Chronicle has been a junky newspaper since Day One. Therefore, should its executives and staffers, reporters included, be given wider latitude than the people who’ve run better quality publications? In other words, the folks running crappy papers have never shown great ambition in the first place, have never tried reaching the top well before the age of the Internet.

    At the very least, when such papers get caught up in the turmoil now facing the MSM, particularly the print part of it, they won’t have as far to fall.

  • 0-shift

    >When the internet came, did you all – every one of you as responsible, smart journalists, on your own – leap to get training in audio and video? Did you immediately hatch new ways to work collaboratively with the vast public of bloggers able and willing to join in local journalism? Not that I saw.<

    Yeah, some of us have figured out the Internet, video and actually doing it. Big whoop.

  • Ulysses

    “When more than one editorial regime had the hubris to think that they should turn the Times into a national – even international – paper, opening bureaus all over the globe and insisting on writing every commodity news stories under their own bylines while letting local coverage suffer, did you protest, litigators? No, those bylines and bureaus were yours.”
    Actually, no, those bylines and bureaus weren’t theirs.
    A little [internet] research would have told you that two of the five plaintiffs on that lawsuit spent their careers doing exemplary local journalism, one was an LA-based food writer, one is an LA-based automobile critic, and one was the paper’s Washington bureau chief.
    I don’t know whether you think food writers and auto critics are guilty of commodity journalism. But the charge that “those bylines and bureaus were yours” is at most 20% true. Yeah, the biggest paper in California had the effrontery to send reporters to Washington. What hubris! Let’s hope that doesn’t happen again. But 20% isn’t an adequate level of truthiness in any medium.

  • 0-shift

    After reading this post, I thought of Palin’s weird populism in her convention speech. It’s also an infection of half truths.

    She said:

    >A writer observed: “We grow good people in our small towns, with honesty, sincerity, and dignity.” I know just the kind of people that writer had in mind when he praised Harry Truman.

    I grew up with those people.

    They are the ones who do some of the hardest work in America … who grow our food, run our factories, and fight our wars.

    They love their country, in good times and bad, and they’re always proud of America. I had the privilege of living most of my life in a small town.

    I was just your average hockey mom, and signed up for the PTA because I wanted to make my kids’ public education better.<Did you immediately hatch new ways to work collaboratively with the vast public of bloggers able and willing to join in local journalism? Not that I saw.<

    What makes you think that local bloggers want to cooperate with with their local newspapers? Based on what?

    Local bloggers, the really good ones, have that same independent streak that once made great newspaper publishers. They treasure it. They don’t want to risk it. They don’t need cooperation. If they want advertising, local independent networks will arise soon enough. Some go direct for revenue and don’t need the revenue share. Local advertisers find them.

    And in some cases local bloggers can do a better job of keeping people informed about Encino than a newspaper can so let’s end this pretense as well. The cooperative relationship you believe will naturally happen won’t necessarily improve this.

    This post by you is as deep and flawed as Palin’s view of people who live in urban areas; she’s not aspiring for wisdom and neither are you.

  • 0-shift

    *** The post above was truncated through a format error on my part. Please delete it. This what I intended:

    After reading this post, I thought of Palin’s weird populism in her convention speech. It’s also an infection of half truths.

    She said:

    >>A writer observed: “We grow good people in our small towns, with honesty, sincerity, and dignity.” I know just the kind of people that writer had in mind when he praised Harry Truman.

    I grew up with those people.

    They are the ones who do some of the hardest work in America … who grow our food, run our factories, and fight our wars.

    They love their country, in good times and bad, and they’re always proud of America. I had the privilege of living most of my life in a small town.

    I was just your average hockey mom, and signed up for the PTA because I wanted to make my kids’ public education better.<<

    Palin’s speech was so a anti-urban, anti-intellectual and straw man, that it actually hurt to listen to it.

    and your analysis of the LA Times is cut from it.

    To write that the LA Times “had the hubris to think that they should turn the Times into a national – even international – paper” is new populism of this industry.

    Let’s put aside the standard canards about how covering Encino is important and look at what the Times aspired to do. It tried to help its readers understand the important issues of its day by investing in foreign coverage. What a noble, lost thing.

    But you don’t have a path to save newspapers.

    Your idea that newspapers must work cooperatively assumes local bloggers want to work with local newspapers:

    You wrote: “Did you immediately hatch new ways to work collaboratively with the vast public of bloggers able and willing to join in local journalism? Not that I saw.”

    What makes you think that local bloggers want to cooperate with with their local newspapers? Based on what?

    Local bloggers, the really good ones, have that same independent streak that once made great newspaper publishers. They treasure it. They don’t want to risk it. They don’t need cooperation. If they want advertising, local independent networks will arise soon enough. Some go direct for revenue and don’t need the revenue share. Local advertisers find them.

    And in some cases local bloggers can do a better job of keeping people informed about Encino than a newspaper can so let’s end this pretense as well. The cooperative relationship you believe will naturally happen won’t necessarily improve this.

    This post by you is as deep and flawed as Palin’s view of people who live in urban areas; she’s not aspiring for wisdom and neither are you.

  • http://www.thefutureofpublishing.com Thad McIlroy

    Jeff,

    That is the most refreshing and to-the-point article (OK, blog entry) I’ve read in the midst of these endless months of hand-wringing, tear-jerking and self-serving twaddle. It’s strong stuff, but exactly what needed to be said. Sure, some folks can take some small issue with parts of it. But they should read the entire indictment and respond to that. You’ve finally said what needed to be said. For this I thank you. I’m going to send my readers to it from my blog.

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  • http://www.splicetoday.com Russ Smith

    Esquire’s cynical, and desperate, attempt to avoid the 2009 retraction of magazines is really a sight.

    http://www.splicetoday.com/politics-and-media/things-i-must-i-be-okay

  • http://www.globaljournalism.org Patrick Yen

    “Our republic and it’s press will rise or fall together.
    The power to mold the future of the republic
    will begin in the hands of the journalist
    of future generations.”

    -Joseph Pulitzer

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  • callie

    Isn’t the issue Zell’s use of the employees retirement plan?

    If so, this would warrant a lawsuit and a possible stay in a federal prison.

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  • http://future-of-news.blogspot.com/ E.B. Boyd

    Jeff:

    I wholeheartedly agree with your larger sentiment (irrespective of the details of the lawsuit, as I see there’s some disagreement here about its exact contents).

    As someone who started out in traditional journalism and then moved to Silicon Valley, worked in tech, and learned a thing or two about technological evolution and innovation, it’s sometimes frustrating to listen to folks in the news business blame the larger shifts on the likes of folks like Sam Zell.

    While Zell (and others) are certainly playing a role, the fact is that the business is irrevocably morphing, due to a whole spectrum of factors. As a result, everyone in the business has to be part of efforts to find the new ways forward. Anyone whose only response is to pine for the good old days is part of the problem. (It’s OK to mourn, but then you have to move on.)

    As I wrote recently, paraphrasing Martin Luther King:
    “The problems of today are not the vitriolic words and the evil actions of the bad people, but the appalling silence and *inaction* of the good people.”

    http://future-of-news.blogspot.com/2008/08/in-recent-esquire-article-newark-mayor.html

    The only way the news business has a chance of surviving is if every single person working in it accepts that the old days are gone, faces the reality of the new environment, and dedicates themselves to exploring new–and effective–ways of executing their mission.

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