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Clueless Times

When you’re finished reading this issue of L.A. Weekly, you might think about preserving its news pages between glass and locking them up in a closet somewhere. If current trends continue, newspapers of any sort are going to be museum pieces.No, I’m not talking about the plans of the investment group that owns this paper to merge with the New Times — though that’s a symptom of the malaise sweeping the whole industry. Rather, we see this week that 18 out of America’s top 20 daily newspapers have lost circulation over the past year. Some are literally hemorrhaging right on the table: the Baltimore Sun down 8.5 percent over the year; the Orlando Sentinel plummeting 11 percent; and the San Francisco Chronicle’s readership nose-diving more than 16 percent. The reasons are many: technological, political and cultural. More and more eyeballs are migrating to the Web. More people have read the day’s news online by the time the daily newspaper drops on their driveways the next morning. The political right sees the mainstream media as hopelessly liberal. The political left thinks reporters and editors are little more than whores to power. Younger Americans of all political persuasions can’t tolerate the “voice of God”: the artificially balanced and bloodless ethos of the establishment newsroom.More editorial cutbacks and consolidation can be expected as advertiser dollars pull back from shrinking papers. The largest shareholder of the Knight-Ridder chain (which includes such mainstays as the San Jose Mercury News and the Miami Herald) is demanding the sale of the company. Rampant speculation settles on none other than Yahoo as a possible buyer. The thought is mind-boggling. The L.A. Times, which lost almost 4 percent of its readership in the past 12 months, seems clueless about how to respond. In spite of some red-hot bright spots, like the world-class series last year on the “Killer King” hospital, management seems unable to create even the illusion that it cares about local news. The so-called California section is what I reach for first, which causes me and many others to wonder why it’s relegated to Section B. To mediate its crisis, the Times has furiously set up a number of blogs as if Web sites on the Oscars and, yes, on travel stories, are going to resuscitate a flagging pulse. How do decisions like that get made?Excessive energy has also been spent in rejiggering the editorial pages — another aspect of the paper that seems to have little to do with its future. The Kinsley Experiment was an embarrassing failure, but what has been the follow-up? Open the editorial pages and find that the mighty L.A. Times still can’t get it together to scare up three or four locally based columnists to project a persuasive institutional voice. Instead, a plethora of weary out-of-town wonks continues to relentlessly wank on unimpeded. I think it’s fine that the Times has a regular conservative contributor. But Max Boot? A graceless, Beltway hack with little political credibility even on the right.And yet, we hear this week the Times is canning its longtime weekly liberal columnist, Bob Scheer, at the end of the year. One more genius move by the visionaries of the Tribune Company. Scheer served honorably as a Times national correspondent for two decades, producing unique and unconventional reporting on Reagan, Russia, Cuba, the Cold War and any other topic he tackled. As a columnist he’s built a loyal local and national following like few other Times writers. Sure, I know the whole rap against Scheer: His writing is loud, even crass. He’s stubbornly opinionated, a fierce and sometimes zealous partisan. A predictable defender of blue-state politics. He can be overbearing, cantankerous and obnoxious at times. Instead of going in with a finely honed scalpel, he’s prone to pounding his subjects repeatedly and relentlessly with a two-by-four. Sometimes Scheer, whom I’ve known for 30 years, has infuriated me — say, with his intransigent defense of Bill Clinton. But that’s what a great columnist is supposed to do — piss you off. If you prefer the politeness of pulled punches and yes/but down-the-middle timidity, well, I suppose you can leisurely leaf through the other 200 pages of the L.A. Times.But go back and review the way Scheer led the national press on the Wen Ho Lee case, calling it a fraud long before his peers could even clear their throats on the matter. And while Bob has been rather single-mindedly bashing Bush on the war for the past three years, ask yourselves which position you’d rather be in as an editor: defending Scheer’s work or that of one Judith Miller?These arguments mean nothing, of course, to the suits who make the big decisions on the life and death of a great newspaper. Their recent decisions have failed to offset the powerful forces battering the profession. Nothing leads me to believe that their current calculations will be any wiser or fare any better.

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