Tuesday, January 30, 2007

James O'Shea's address to Times staff

Following is the text of prepared remarks by Los Angeles Editor James E. O'Shea to Times staff

Link to address on latimes.com

With our industry in turmoil, our company for sale and our futures uncertain, it's easy to forget that journalism is a great calling. Sure we all face daunting challenges but we still have interesting jobs.

We meet fascinating people and publish a newspaper every day that tells people stories, informs, entertains and enlightens.

We anger people, make them laugh and keep a watchful eye on the institutions created to serve them. Could it get any better? Yes. And it is about to.

Today I am going to outline how the Los Angeles Times is going to transform itself from being a great newspaper to becoming an awesome, relentless, powerful story-telling machine online and in print.

The genesis for this, of course, is the Spring Street project launched by my predecessor and friend, Dean Baquet.

Over the last several months, a group of your colleagues, editors and reporters from this newsroom, fanned out across the country and the world to interview some of the world's best minds and organizations trying to figure out how newspapers should adapt to thrive in this brave new universe.

The project's initial goal was to assess how we can build readership both online and in the newspaper.

But the group soon decided that the Los Angeles Times needed to focus urgently on our online efforts and then deal with newspaper issues by building on the substantial body of information we already possess on newspaper readership.

The Spring Street group's conclusion about our progress online is brutally honest and it doesn't paint a pretty picture. We're woefully behind.

I know that our natural inclination as journalists is to ask why. Who is responsible, whose fault is it, who is to blame?

And the answer to that question is: It's everyone's fault.

Every editor, reporter, photographer, artist, everyone who works here everyone who is in this room and everyone who is not here.

Everyone who has ever come up with an excuse as to why we can't do something new and different, it is your fault just as much as anyone's.

I am new to this newsroom.

As I said in my initial remarks last November, I came here because I thought I could help. And the best way for me to help is to tell you the truth.

This is an excellent newsroom teeming with talent, integrity and ambition. It is a paragon of journalistic excellence. We have good strong ethics and solid standards.

But the newsroom can also be a cold, defensive, insular and conservative place, plagued by a bunker mentality that hides behind tradition and treats change as a threat.

I know there are reasons for this caution. The Willes era; the Staples Center; a determination to maintain the legacy of Otis Chandler. But we can't -- and I won't -- let those motives become roadblocks to overcoming our problems, and we have some.

We've all heard about our readership troubles and the dangers they pose to our future so I won't belabor that. But let me take a few moments to share some alarming data on our finances.

As an organization and a business, we are in a fight to recoup threatened revenue that finances our newsgathering.

Ad revenue across the board is under challenge but let me share just one category to demonstrate how fast our world is changing and the dimensions of this changing financial dynamic.

In 2004, automotive print advertising at the Los Angeles Times totaled $102 million. And what will it be this year? $55 million.

That is $47 million gone, unavailable to pay salaries and expenses. We made some of that up online. Online auto classified in 2004 totaled only $7 million. But by 2007, it climbed to $31 million, or $24 million up. But notice what is happening here – we lost $47 million in print and only recovered $24 million online. For every $2 we lost, we are recouping only about $1.

The story is similar in other areas. Some categories, such as real estate, are doing well but it is just a matter of time that it too will go south unless we can build online readership faster while keeping print readers. We have to get better.

At this rate, those double-digit profit margins everyone cites will be single digits and then be gone.

Now the truth is there are all kinds of reasons for that decline. Delving into them would be a great MBA thesis at the Harvard Business School.

But we can't hide from the fact that smart competitors such as Google and Craigslist are stealing readers and advertisers from us through innovative strategies that are undermining the business model we've relied on for decades.

As many in this room have painfully discovered in their 401K statements, these developments are threatening the value of our stock portfolios. Equally significant, they are threatening the durability of crucial circulation and advertising revenues that enable us to effectively provide the news to a large and diverse audience.

Thanks to those revenues, we provide to citizens of this city, state, nation and world a vibrant great newspaper at a cost almost anyone can afford, 50 cents. Name me anything you can buy today for 50 cents.

If we don't help reverse these revenue trends, we will not be able to cost-effectively provide the news -- the daily bread of democracy. The stakes are high.

So what are we going to do about it?

Number One: By working with our online colleagues, we are going to integrate our online and print newsrooms to become the best news gathering organization in the world, giving readers who live in Southern California the best source of locally-edited news they can get anywhere.

During my initial weeks as editor, I had lunch with all of my direct reports and asked them about their futures and their aspirations.

One of them, Joel Sappell, a great editor who has done path-breaking work at latimes.com during a period of immense challenge, told me he would like to return to the editing of projects.

We all know that Joel is hands-down one of the best projects editors in the country. He built the substantial body of work that is now the foundation for latimes.com upon which we can build a journalistic fortress.

He is going to return to a projects role in the newsroom where he can capitalize on his expertise to create and edit projects for the paper and enhance them for the web, a job he is uniquely positioned to do.

Since you really can't replace a talent like Joel, I am creating a new job, one, by the way, that was recommended by the Spring Street Group, the Special Editor for Innovation and I am naming Russ Stanton to that job.

As we all know, Russ, who currently runs our business coverage, is an extremely talented editor and leader, a journalist of impeccable standards and consummate skill.

He will report directly to the editor of the newspaper and he will create and lead the integrated newsroom into the brave new world we want to chart.

Russ has my complete and total support. Helping him is helping me; helping Russ is helping yourself.

I can guarantee you that Russ is not going to ask you to do anything that will diminish the integrity of this newspaper or this newsroom.

Our values, our dedication to high-quality, locally edited journalism is our greatest asset. It is the thing that distinguishes us from the prattle and rabble on the Internet and Russ will protect our integrity zealously.

But he will also challenge you. By virtue of its lightning speed and undisciplined nature, the Internet poses unique challenges to the way we practice journalism. Change is coming; it has to.

One of Russ's first assignments is to set up a training regimen for everyone in the newsroom to develop an expertise on the Internet and become savvy multi-media journalists.

A whole new world in out there -- video, photo galleries, chat rooms, landing pages. And to disprove the adage that you can't teach an old dog new tricks, I am going to be one of his first students. This training is mandatory for everyone.

Currently we have a newspaper staff and an latimes.com staff. No more. From now on, there are no two staffs, there is just one. And we will function as one. One of Russ's first jobs will be to help set up that newsroom. Leo Wolinsky is already working on a plan and details will be coming soon.

Latimes.com will become our primary vehicle for breaking news 24 hours a day. Reporters now enter the newsroom and tell editors what kind of a story they will write for the newspaper the next day.

Then -- we tend to think what can we do for the Internet, as if it were some kind of journalistic orphan.

That kind of thinking must change if we want to remain competitive.

We need to enter the newsroom and think about how we are going to break news on the Internet.

And then what we are going to do that will be different for the newspaper, which will become an even stronger vehicle for tightly-written context, analysis, interpretation and expertise. There is no better example of that than this morning front page story by John Horn and Gina Piccalo's piece on the Oscar's, a sohpisticaed analysis of the international forces driving the decisions of the judges.

By its inclusive nature, the Internet is massive. Through latimes.com, we can give readers our story, our databases, access to our sources -- when appropriate, access to our reporters, our editors, our thinking. It is our journalistic reservoir.

The newspaper is the edited medium, the place where we make choices about what is crucial to a story and what is not, where we use our sources and expertise to make editorial decisions that save our readers time, that capitalize on our journalistic experience and expertise to help people negotiate a tricky and confusing world, where we focus on the personalities behind the news and where we exercise literary and journalistic discipline to tell people what we think they need to know and not necessarily everything that we as journalists know about a subject.

Just as a blog is not a God-given right to inflict ignorance on an unsuspecting public, there's no journalistic birthright for print reporters to write an 80 inch story when 30 inches will do.

The newspaper is the medium in which we must use editing and journalistic discipline to channel that online reservoir and funnel it into a pipeline that leads to our reader's doorsteps.

Although I have the highest confidence in Russ, I am not going to overburden him with the task of doing all of this alone. Online journalism poses huge issues for the newsroom.

The standards for online news are different from the newspaper; the placement of ads is different, too. What is unacceptable in one medium is standard practice in another.

The newsroom must weigh in on these issues. To help Russ I am going to set up a working group of journalists from the newsroom to grapple with these issues and recommend ways to move forward without compromising our journalistic integrity but also in ways that recognize the brave new world we face.

We need new standards for what we will publish online that preserves our greatest asset – the integrity of our newspaper.

I am going to establish a second working group from the newsroom to help me with another major challenge we face, redesigning the print newspaper to make it an effective backbone for latimes.com.

Sometime this fall, the Los Angeles Times, like every other major paper including the New York Times, Washington Post, Chicago Tribune and others, will adapt a 48-inch press web that will create a newspaper that will be slightly narrower than the one we currently publish.

There is no stopping this conversion. The entire industry is moving that way. Even if we were not going to make any newsroom changes, the new press web width would probably require a redesign.

This time, though, we are going to do a real redesign, one that questions and challenges every section of the newspaper, a redesign that relates individual sections to the newspaper as a whole.

This effort will come from within the newsroom. We will lead it, but we will also include in our working group some thoughtful colleagues from outside the newsroom, people who have expertise and experience in areas unfamiliar to journalists.

Ideally I would like to take a year to rethink everything we do. But we don't have the luxury of that much time. Innovation is something we have to do in the newspaper every day. It is an ongoing process.

So we probably will do a phased redesign that will play out over the next year. The redesign working group will work this out.

I know this all sounds pretty scary. We have to think about doing things differently and in ways that involve some journalistic risk that should make us all a little uncomfortable.

But there's nothing wrong with facing challenges that make us uncomfortable. That's healthy. Being uncomfortable but being in the game is a lot better than sitting on the sidelines, comfortable but out of the game.

So I urge everyone to venture outside our comfort zones but also to think about the opportunities the online world presents for new and powerful means of storytelling.

Some of the techniques we must perfect already are available on latimes.com. Look at the intriguing storytelling Joel did with the Altered Oceans and Lifeline series.

In the features area, we are about to unveil a new Travel section that was developed in conjunction with the travel site on latimes.com. The new Travel package focuses on familiar destinations that are popular with readers in Southern California, such as London, but it also places more emphasis on destinations closer to home, such as San Diego or Las Vegas.

It takes advantage of the superior writing, editing, photography and graphics we have in the print newspaper.

But it also features many of the strengths available from the Internet, such as the ability to interact with readers, helping them book trips to the places they are reading about.

This mixture of print, online and commerce has never been done here.

There's also the new interactive web feature MyLAtimes, a free, custom news feed service that gives readers a faster, easier more flexible way to get content that is important to them.

And we've just hired Mary Kay Schilling to be the editor of both a print and online CalanderLive designed to become the go to destination for local personal entertainment.

Those steps are tiny compared to where we can go, though.

We've all heard the armchair editors on Wall Street talk about how foreign news is a commodity. Well the foreign reporting in the Los Angeles Times is not a commodity.

It is locally edited enterprise news that goes AS far beyond what editors can get from wires AS Beijing is from Beirut. We in the newsroom have just done a poor job of tooting our horn.

So I asked members of the Spring Street project to go to work on this and come up with something that shows the unique nature of our foreign report.

The result was a foreign Landing Page for latimes.com where a reader can go to learn about the world we cover and the amazing, brave and dedicated people who bring the news to our readers.

I've always felt if we could include readers in the incredible efforts we undertake to get the news, they would be so much more responsive to us. Now the Internet provides us with an opportunity to bring readers into the process as never before.

I emphasize that the page I just put up is a rough draft; we will do a lot better. But just look at the possibilities here.

We can take readers to the scene of our stories in ways we simply can't do in print.

Dispatches from Times correspondents can vividly answer questions about what its like to walk through the Green Zone in Baghdad or negotiate your way through an Israeli checkpoint, things that correspondents do every day to bring the news to Southern California.

Live chats can let readers communicate directly with our people in the field. Pictures, video, graphics and words all enhance a readers experience and help build interest in the edited stories in the newspaper each day.

We've all heard about the importance of local news, and this is an area where we must excel. But just look at this prototype of community news landing page.

Again, rough drafts, not finished pages. But look at all of the things we can do by providing local resources without flooding the zone with reporters. We will need to divert some resources to this effort at a time when no one is going to give us any more resources. If anything we might be looking at less.

But changing fortunes can't be an excuse to do nothing. Our mission is to cover the news in compelling ways that drives traffic to the web and by extension to the newspaper, giving us a plausible argument for more resources, not less.

The potential becomes really mind-boggling when you look at what we can do with our expertise, our columnists, our beat reporters, our experts, our investigative reporting.

Here's a prototype of a landing page for autos, which would capitalize our car coverage in this the wheels capital of the world. And we didn't even get into what we could do with a talent like Dan Neil.

As anyone can see, the road on which we are going to embark is rough. This will not be easy and we are all going to work harder than we've probably ever had to work in our lives.

In my limited time here, I've heard a lot of talk about why we can't do things, the lack of resources, the lack of people, so-and-so used to do that but he took a buy out. Many of these observations are valid.

But focusing on past wrongs won't make anything right. We must focus on the future, for the future is ours. Our fight is journalism's fight. We all know this is a great newspaper, capable of even greater things. The future is in our hands as great storytellers, the one constant in our ever-changing universe.

We have a good story to tell so let's start telling it and telling it well. Let's make our great journalism available to an even wider audience; let's show the world that newspapers and the journalists that create them are not dead. We are alive, well and fighting back.

Thank you, and now I will take some questions.


Anonymous said...

Newspaper Ownership Is Turning The Page
In Orange County, The Private Model
By Frank Ahrens
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, January 16, 2007; Page D01

Freedom president Scott N. Flanders.................

Half of Flanders's job is running Freedom. The other half is figuring out how to buy out Providence and Blackstone and return the paper to full family control. Flanders would not offer specifics on how to buy out the equity firms, but one obvious method is to raise revenue through new advertising initiatives.

"When an industry is under siege, revenue streams need to be considered that were heretofore considered sacrosanct," Flanders said.

Flanders offers up the experience of former L.A. Times publisher Mark Willes as an example. Under Willes, the paper brought an ethical scandal on itself in 1999 by publishing a magazine about the newly opened Staples Center arena and splitting ad revenue with the venue, breaching the editorial-advertising wall. "No one would bat an eye at that today," Flanders said, though he added it was important to maintain Freedom's journalistic standards. "Mark Willes was ahead of his time."

Anonymous said...

48 inch papaer? Move over, you other tabloids, here we come!