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"I don't think even Aaron knows if it's gonna work," says one Register reporter. "But they feel like the eyes of the journalism nation are on them."
At a big staff meeting, in a newsroom packed with Register employees, one of the first questions Kushner was asked was, "Are you going to buy the L.A. Times?" About the same time, Kushner, who declined to comment for this story, told a Register reporter: "We would be honored to acquire the Los Angeles Times if they successfully are able to come out of bankruptcy."
Gustavo Arellano, editor of L.A. Weekly sister paper OC Weekly, which recently published an in-depth look at Kushner, comments, "I really think for him it's a hobby. The minute he stops making money, he stops his model railroad."
Because the Times is so "ridiculously cheap," Doctor warns, it could attract "a motley collection of buyers." The nightmare scenario: someone like "Papa Doug" Manchester, 70, a right-wing developer who bought the San Diego Union-Tribune (now U-T San Diego) and, critics say, turned it into a cheerleader for the city and its developers.
Manchester, who changed the U-T's motto to the cloying, "The World's Greatest Country & America's Finest City," told public radio station KPBS last year he was "certainly" going to consider buying the L.A. Times. (His partner, John Lynch, says: "As far as we know, it's not for sale," and refused comment.)
Needless to say, the mood among the 500 or so people in the Times' editorial operation is a mix of hope and nervousness.
Jim Newton, the paper's editor-at-large, says, "There's a slight possibility that the paper will come out of this with a new, more engaged owner." But, he chuckles, "On the other hand, as one of my colleagues once said, 'We've long ago gotten over the idea that it can't get worse.' "
Throughout its four-year bankruptcy, Times newsrooms from downtown L.A. to Washington, D.C., to Sacramento limped along. Yet some coverage was awe-inspiring, including the riveting City of Bell investigation and the paper's game-changing "Grading the Teachers" series about the Los Angeles Unified School District.
Geneva Overholser, director of USC's Annenberg School of Journalism, says the diminished paper had no choice but to act "almost like a beacon sweeping across the vastness. Wherever it lands, that's where you'll learn about."
Certain cost-saving decisions made by Times publisher and Tribune Co. CEO Eddie Hartenstein have been met with derision and hostility, such as the fake front pages that turn out to be advertisements for, say, the Ryan Gosling flop Gangster Squad. Or Hartenstein's agreement to print The Wall Street Journal on the Times' prized printing presses, requiring that much of the Times be printed earlier in the evening, ruining its time-zone advantage over East Coast papers.
In an attempt to make up for this, the Times launched its LATExtra section, a grab bag of local, national and foreign stories that purportedly contains the freshest news. "You look at the damn thing, it's like a ransom note," Rutten says. "What the hell is it? Here's a story about the Board of Supervisors, a bear in La Cañada, a coup in 'Berzerkistan.' "
Hartenstein's move saved as much as $9 million a year, according to the Tribune Co. employee who saw financial documents, perhaps preventing job cuts. The Times has begun hiring, albeit mostly less-experienced (and cheaper) reporters.
But the paper faces deeper structural problems even as The Wall Street Journal and The New York Times pave the way to the digital era. The L.A. Times has been, in the words of one ex-reporter, "in suspended animation." Its website hasn't had a major redesign since 2009, and its Tribune software stifles innovation.
One problematic effort has been its paywall, launched on March 5, 2012, which allows readers 15 free pageviews a month before requiring a paid subscription. The paywall is cumbersome and hard to figure out, repeatedly kicking subscribers out and forcing them to sign in via a third-party website like Google or Facebook.
"They've pretty much failed doing their paid content," says Steve Brill, founder of Court TV and American Lawyer, who now runs Press+, a firm that has created paywalls for more than 400 papers. "Their system doesn't work. It's completely customer-unfriendly."
Editor Maharaj denies that the paper went into paralysis but steers his comments toward its content rather than its structural challenges, saying, "In the last four years, we've produced great journalism under a cloud of bankruptcy."
While that is clearly true, the arts and entertainment coverage offers an interesting case study of Maharaj's reign thus far, during which he has developed both loyal staffers and critics who privately disdain him and his years in the 'burbs.
When Maharaj took over in December 2011, Sallie Hofmeister was assistant managing editor (arts and entertainment). A friend of Maharaj's from their days in the Times' Business section, Hofmeister oversaw 50 reporters and all culture coverage — including Calendar and the Envelope — after a short stint as business editor. Some ex-Calendar employees say she strongly anticipated a promotion, perhaps to Wolinsky's old job, managing editor. Maharaj didn't promote her, and she left. (Hofmeister could not be reached for comment; Maharaj declined to comment.)