Monday, February 18, 2008

Choice of New Editor Is Sign of The Times for Newspapers

The L.A. Times named a new editor last week and I think the choice of whom to fill the position says a lot about where Publisher David D. Hiller and Tribune Co., which owns The Times, think the future of the newspaper business is going. And just where would that be? Headed to the Internet.

Russ Stanton
, who had been the paper's innovation editor, is the new editor of The Times. As innovation editor he was in charge of invigorating The Time's website. Whether he's now in charge of invigorating the paper or merely overseeing its migration to the web remains to be seen.

He will be the paper's fourth editor in less than three years.

Stanton was picked over the paper's Managing editor and Editorial Page Editor, something that might very well have been unthinkable only a few years ago.

Stanton would appear to agree that it was the web that gave him the edge over the other candidates. The article linked to above quoted him as saying, "What I bring to the table is an understanding of our print newsroom, our website and the Internet, and how we can make those three things work together to ensure that we're going to be around for another 126 years."

The paper's online edition, which can be found at, has been adding readers at about an annual rate of 20 percent. However the print version of The Times has seen daily circulation fall to about 780,000 from a peak of more than 1.1 million in the early 1990s.

Given those numbers it's hard to argue with the conclusion that the growth of online readership of newspapers is coming at the expense of their paper and ink versions.

Some people say that newspapers will never completely go away. I'm not so sure. Look at what's happened to the music industry. Oh, we still have music alright. But you'd be hard pressed to find it on an 8 track cassette or on vinyl. And CD sales continue to plummet.

Cassettes proved to be a better delivery medium than 8 tracks just as CD's proved to be a better delivery medium than vinyl or cassette. And yes, downloading music off the Internet is proving to be a better delivery medium than CD's.

We will always have news and we will always have journalism. But how long will news continue to be delivered by the most inefficient delivery system known to man, somebody getting into their car and driving all over town before dawn to throw it into your driveway?

I think the publisher of The Times knows that the demise of the newspaper as we know it is sooner than we think and the transition to the web is not going to be put on hold while the industry tries to figure out how to make a buck at it.

That thought leads to my next question, how well prepared is our own News-Press for the transition to a constantly increasing online readership?

Judging by what's going on at The Times and other newspapers, the circulation numbers at the News-Press would be going south under even the best of circumstances. But given its reputation as "the paper of rancor" the News-Press and its web presence appear to be on the fast track to irrelevance.

Not only does require a subscription to access its content, but the site looks dated and cluttered to boot. vs., cluttered vs. clean.

In fact the only area in which it excels is its ability to thwart the pop-up ad blocker on most Internet browsers.

The website suffers from the same malady as the printed paper itself. Lack of content. Owner Wendy McCaw seems more determined than ever lately to keep viewpoints that differ from her's out of the paper. That may be okay if you're running a blog but this is a general circulation newspaper we're talking about.

Worst of all, those who hold opposing viewpoints are not merely disagreed with, they're vilified. Former city councilman Brian Barnwell and local attorney Steve Amerikaner are but the most recent examples of this.

Then there's the matter of who's in charge of the newsroom. There's not been anyone who has held the title of editor of the paper since Jerry Roberts departed a year and a half ago. If you're not going to hire an editor why not make associate editor Scott Steepleton the editor? Of course that would mean that McCaw is giving up some of her control.

As McCaw and her defenders are quick to point it out, it's her paper and she can do whatever she wants with it. True enough I suppose.

During last summer's NLRB hearings, McCaw attorney Barry Cappello told KEYT's Tracy Lehr, "So if the publisher wants to be a William Randolph Hearst and start a war in Cuba, they can do it..."

Of course if Hearst did start a war it's because he wanted to use it to sell more newspapers. When McCaw starts a war it's because she wants to do damage to people's reputations.

Under McCaw's ownership of the News-Press it isn't about selling papers or even putting out a product that readers want. It's about putting out a paper that reflects her point of view, her interests, bashes her "enemies" and is under, her control.

Until that changes, don't expect to see improvements in the printed paper or its website.