The Front Page

The idea of starting a new newspaper in Los Angeles is appealing to me. Like many newsmen, I’m a romantic about the days when competing newspapers fought hard to beat each other, when scoops meant something and every city editor had a bottle of rye in his bottom drawer.

In the good old days of newspapering, publishers weren’t afraid of pushing an agenda and reporters had no qualms about aggravating a source with a hard-hitting story.

There are still a lot of things I like about newspapers today, and I think higher professional and ethical standards are a good thing, but for the most part, the edge is gone from most daily fish wraps.

If any modern newspaper man can put out an edgy, well-written, hard-hitting daily, it’s Ken Layne, who is part of a widely reported proposal by former LA Mayor Richard Riordan to start publishing a five-day-a-week competitor for the Los Angeles Times.

I’m not clear on exactly what role Layne will play in the new paper, but we should hope that if this project actually gets a press rolling someday, that Layne will have a strong editorial voice.

That’s the good news. The bad news is, I’m skeptical that a new daily in Los Angeles can be successful. Layne and Matt Welch, his partner in the local-media watchdog, bristle at the nay sayers and critics of this idea, but it isn’t like the skepticism isn’t well founded.

In this day and age, starting a daily newspaper and having it actually become profitable is a long-shot at best. Of course, media critics scoffed when Rupert Murdoch wanted to start a new television network, but Fox is doing OK. Brandon Tartikoff, Fred Silverman and Grant Tinker all predicted doom for Fox. That was in 1987.

So who am I, or, for that matter, Bryce Nelson, to say “The Daily Dick” will fail?

At the risk of drawing the ire of Layne and Welch, I’ll point out a few things they probably already know, but are worthy of discussion.

  • Daily newspapers have been in decline for more than four decades, at least. The trend has been for newspapers to close, not open. The Los Angeles Herald-Examiner shut down in 1989. A historical trend, in itself, means nothing, but there is a reason newspapers close, such as declining readership and more options for advertisers. In defense of a start-up, the expectations are different and the revenue modal will be designed to fit the times. Newspapers that closed were obviously unable to change with the market. That still doesn’t mean the right business plan can be formulated today.
  • The expense of publishing a daily newspaper remain enormous, even with a good business plan. Paper is expensive, labor is expensive and you need a lot of working parts — newsroom, circulation, classifieds, advertising, human resources, facilities. Riordan’s plan calls for a staff of 40, but even then the logistics of starting a new daily will be significant. Of course, money can solve a lot of problems, and Riordan will reportedly have the financial backing.
  • Classifieds are declining. The biggest problem facing daily newspapers today is the loss of recruitment advertising, the help wanted ads. The main reason your daily newspaper only costs 50 cents instead of the $2,00 (or more) it should cost, is the presence of paid classifieds. But the Internet is hurting classified sales in a number of key categories, such as autos, personals and real estate, not just jobs. The battle isn’t over, but “The Daily Dick” will need a good online presence to leverage these categories.
  • The big advertisers, those who buy the multi-page display ads (the other large slice of a newspaper’s revenue), don’t care about a newspaper’s politics, its commitment to the community or the quality of its writers — big advertisers only care about numbers, circulation numbers. And those circulation numbers need to be audited, and the circulation numbers of free papers (which Riordan is planning) are always viewed with suspicion. I have direct experience with this issue and I can tell you, it’s a bitch to overcome.
  • Reader loyalty for the Times will remain strong. I don’t care how much people bitch about the Times, it is still their newspaper. They will be reluctant to give it up. In hectic, always-on-the-freeway Los Angeles, how many people are going to read two daily newspapers? That was the problem the Herald-Examiner finally succumbed to. If “The Daily Dick” can’t compete in the areas of sports, lifestyle and entertainment, it is going to have a hard time gaining reader loyalty. And since Sept. 11, international news is in bigger demand than ever, and this is something the LA Times excels at (even with an anti-Israeli slant).
  • LA isn’t New York. Those promoting the idea of “The Daily Dick” are fascinated by the launch of the New York Sun, which hit the streets April 16. New York is more urbanized than Los Angeles, with residents who feel more rooted to their communities (many Angelenos are transplants, either from another country, another part of the country or another part of California) so New Yorkers are more likely be fascinated with a new newspaper that aims to serve New York. They have a bigger stake in their city and their burroughs.

Ken Layne and Matt Welch are very experienced Web publishers. I’m a little surprised that they would want to get involved in a print publication, except that I think they share my romantic idealization of the good old days of newspapering. But from a business perspective, the Riordan venture would have a much better chance of succeeding if they at least started out as an online-only publication. In that scenario, expenses could be controled and they could serve their readers better. LA is a very wired area and since Riordan seems most interested in reaching a more affluent audience, he should be able to find that audience online. Instead of wasting money on newsprint and circulation, Riordan could funnel those millions into billboards and television commercials. Also, reader expectations would be dramatically scaled back and the need to be inclusive (covering sports, lifestyle and entertainment) would be mitigated. Yes, there are some tough revenue hurdles to clear online, but I’m confident that it can be done.

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