Mr. Russ Stanton, the Editor of the Los Angeles Times, the largest news-gathering organization west of the Mississippi and my home-town newspaper, delivered an extraordinary message in the Sunday edition. What he wrote — that the future of the Times, in print and online, rests on its ability to deliver news and information that is “unique, far-reaching and indispensable. In-depth journalism remains our hallmark and we are committed to that mission in the face of economic challenges to our industry and our nation as a whole” — wasn’t an earth-shaking revelation. What’s remarkable is that Mr. Stanton’s message was delivered as a front-page fold-over insert, an unmissable alarm that, literally, came before the Page One headlines about the War on Terror and California wildfires (part one of a series that will win a Pulitzer Prize, I predict).
The implication: This is getting serious.
If you follow the publishing business even casually, you’re probably aware that the Times (as well as a number of other important media assets, including the Chicago Cubs baseball team) were recently acquired by Sam Zell, a fierce and fiercely successful billionaire, whose troll-like visage belies his wildly powerful capitalist ambitions. Like most people who buy properties in hope of making them more profitable, Zell is a famous cost-cutter (and canny debt re-structurer) who has already overseen a sizable staff reduction in the Times newsroom, and a parade of top leaders ushered to early retirement or forced resignation. Despite a large upturn in viewership at LATimes.com, the online site, print readership and revenues continue to plummet, and more journalism jobs are expected to be eliminated before the end of the year. The situation has all the hallmarks of a crisis.
The evisceration of a genuinely excellent newspaper is sad. The loss of wages for hard-working (and idealistic) writers is painful. The end of an era is haunting.
But what’s really depressing (and frightening) is that what’s happening at the Times is only the tip of the imploding iceberg. Just as the energy analysts describing the escalating price of oil like to say: You ain’t seen nothing yet.
Despite Mr. Stanton’s earnest assurances, the Times and most every other publication that requires folks to sit down for an hour or two to concentrate on reading and thinking is going extinct as rapidly as our ocean’s coral reefs. It’s not because the newspaper is becoming less well-written, less reliable, less intelligent (USA Today, excepted). It’s because our culture has morphed into one where a miniscule attention-span is best suited to the rapidity of information circulation. Most folks don’t care to spend the time and energy a newspaper (or thoughtful magazine, or book) requires. And why should they? The short version, with the pertinent facts (or what passes as such), is available 24-hours-a-day on the Internet and TV. Why bother exploring more deeply, learning more about the world around you, when Bill O’Reilly or TMZ can explain it all in five minutes or less? And when the precious commodity of time is better spent in the pursuit of fabulousness and comfort?
This space has previously decried the obvious atrophy of our society’s reading muscle. Although it’s a skill and pleasure that will probably never go away completely — people need to read their TV guide, after all — the future of printed reading matter is dimmer than ever. Despite the brave and inspiring assurances from the Editor of the Times on the front page of his paper, the writing is on the wall. And with every hurtling month, it’s looking less like a Nabokov novel, Ashberry poem, or Carson investigation and more like a hastily scrawled grafitto.