Racing stripes on the Titanic

It’s amazing to me that the LA Times is still having its food fights in public. Publisher David Hiller announced that the paper would take page-one ads, and in a story in the paper, itss editor, Jim O’Shea, said he fought the move and appointed a committee across departments not including his own to oppose the ads.

Meanwhile, the ship is sinking. In his memo to the staff, Hiller said that revenue is down 10 percent and cash flow is down a whopping – his words – 27 percent in latest quarter and that run-of-paper advertising (the big ads) is down 20 percent in the last few years.

Surely everyone can see where this is headed. Shoes wet yet?

I’m not opposed to page-one ads but I’d say that’s not where all this energy, effort, and angst should be going. It’s not that the paper doesn’t matter but with this rate of decline, what everyone should be concentrating on is what come after the paper: not a reinvented print product, not new companions to a print product, but a new conception of local news.

In his memo, Hiller praised the development going on, both in print and online: the launch of a new section, the redesign of another two, and two new online entertainment products. And he talks about one of those corporate initiatives that yield meetings and banners — “Times Change,” this one is called. That’s all well and good.

But what is the LA Times as a local brand and service — note: service vs. product — going to look like in five years and how is it going to get there? How can it get far more local than it is today? How can it build broader networks of people and content and advertising? How can it pay for all that development and experimentation? And how can it survive long enough to get there?

I’d say a page-one ad is no big deal and should even be welcomed if it pays for that work, the work of survival.