(This interview was originally published on The Nieman Journalism Lab)
Jim O’Shea was fired as editor of The Los Angeles Times in January 2008 for resisting staff cuts. His successor, Russ Stanton, has trimmed nearly 300 positions from the newsroom as Tribune Co. attempts to crawl out from under its crushing load of debt. On Monday night, I coaxed the two of them into an on-camera reunion of sorts and asked about the wisdom of those layoffs, the newspaper’s financial state, and whether the Times has caught up on the web after a belated start.
Stanton would not rule out more layoffs in his newsroom. “Let’s just say that I don’t think the revenue picture has been improved enough to justify the size of the newsroom,” he said, adding, “I don’t think there’s anybody out there who can promise an end to cuts.” He also ruled out selling subscriptions to the Times’ website: “I don’t see a scenario under which we’re going to be able to do that, charging for general-interest news.” Stanton was in town for a panel at Harvard Law School. O’Shea, who’s at Harvard this semester as a Shorenstein fellow, was in the audience.
Q: Are newspapers cutting back too far in a way that might hurt their future prospects? Either one of you.
Jim O’Shea: I personally think they are. I long thought that the only way that you’re going to survive in this is you have to invest something in journalism. Obviously that’s very tough in this current environment, and it’s hard to invest at a time when the economy’s going downhill. But I think the way you cut and how you reinvest the savings you got are very important. But I don’t think you can continue doing this.
You know, people have to understand something: newspapers are a manufacturing industry. And there’s just, at some point, you’re gonna cut it to the point where you won’t be able to get the thing out the door because you don’t have enough employees. And they’re getting dangerously close to that point right now, and I think that people like Russ have to struggle with that everyday. And it’s quite a struggle, but I think you’re getting to a point where, you know, newspapers are going to be a different industry, and they aren’t going to be able to produce the news that’s vital to a democracy if this continues.
Q: Russ, you’re in the hot seat on this one, so—
Russ Stanton: Yeah, well, suffice it to say I’ve yet to meet an editor who’s enjoyed the process of making his or her newsroom smaller. It’s a painful, heartbreaking, and miserable process, and unfortunately, the size of our newsroom is determined precisely by how much money is coming in the door everyday, and that’s not an area we can control.
Q: You mentioned in the talk today that the Times didn’t really start working on its web presence in earnest until January ’07, was what you said?
Q: Is that biting— coming back to bite the Times now? Or have you caught up?
Stanton: Well, I think we’ve caught up a lot over the past 24 months. Did it hurt us on the front end? Well, I suppose there was ad revenue we didn’t capture becaue we weren’t generating enough traffic. Would it have been enough to make a meaningful difference in the situation we’re in today? Probably not.
Q: And you’ve also said that currently, online revenue covers or could cover the cost of the newsroom alone at the L.A. Times.
Stanton: Mmhm. Just the payroll, not the expense of gathering the news, which is a whole other double-digit, large, million-dollar figure.
Q: So let me ask the devil’s advocate question, which is — and there are plenty of answers to this, of course — why not shut off the presses right now?
Stanton: For a number of reasons. One, in our case, you’d be walking away from hundreds and hundreds of millions of dollars in revenue that you don’t have to— you know, why part with that until you have to? And that’s one of the strategies that we’re employing and I suspect a lot of others are, which is, we’ve got to slowly— we’ve got to hold on to the paper as long as humanly possible because it is the lifeblood that finances everything else.
O’Shea: You know, another thing you can’t forget is that there are 700,000 or so people in Los Angeles who want the paper delivered to their door everyday, and you just can’t walk away from those people. Now, maybe they’ll have to pay more to get it delivered there, and that could really be the answer. But at some point, somebody’s gotta pay the cost of gathering the news. It’s not free. People say the news is free. That’s not true. It costs money.
Q: When you were editor, did you ever consider charging for online access?
O’Shea: No, I didn’t because we were at a different stage. I mean, I think what Russ has done over the past 24 months has been terrific. But I think what really hurt is not, did they start too late? We probably did start later than we should have. But I think they’ve made up a tremendous amount of ground in two years. But the problem is you had a recession that just saps your revenue at a time when you need it to invest in the online area, and that’s what’s really hurting us, is the economic downturn. I think the papers could survive this without the economic downtown. The economic downturn has taken a lot of debt-heavy papers down.
Q: Sure. And, Russ, have you considered now, under your tenure, charging for online?
Stanton: No, not at all. For the reasons I mentioned earlier. I just think that the genie’s out of the bottle on that, and I don’t see a scenario under which we’re going to be able to do that, charging for general-interest news.
Q: Do you think that the newsroom budget has been trimmed down far enough to make the L.A. Times financially secure or more secure than it was six months ago?
Stanton: Let’s just say that I don’t think the revenue picture has been improved enough to justify the size of the newsroom.
Q: Does that mean that you can’t promise an end to cuts?
Stanton: Yeah. I don’t think there’s anybody out there who can promise an end to cuts.
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