I ran into some friends from the Los Angeles Times at a party this weekend at the home of my predecessor at the Weekly, Al Mittelstadt (he was celebrating his recent, unplanned departure from the downsizing CityBeat). The Times folks were commiserating over Sam Zell's huge upcoming cuts, in which he intends to wipe out about 82 pages per week of editorial content from the L.A. Times.
That's a shocking number. But the most incredible news was the way in which Zell is measuring what The New York Times referred to today as “per capita production at each paper” in the Tribune chain. According to my friends at the Times, Zell's minions are measuring the column inches produced by each writer, then concluding that some people are loafing.
I can't defend some of the wasteful things I saw the Times do in the 1980s and 90s when I was a Metro reporter there. People who closely follow the newspaper remember how two reporters investigated Scientology for years, only to finally produce a lackluster front page series that told us stuff we already knew.
Another was the endless, overripe “Enrique's Journey,” a maddening immigration story that made certain it was safe for the paper's Southland readers by finding an illegal immigrant protagonist bound not for Los Angeles — but the East Coast. The too-flowery story won a Pulitzer, and it later turned out the protagonist, Enrique, was a jerk.
How is Zell going to measure the many interviews that were needed to get those stories, or quantify, per story, the years it took these top Times reporters to collect the private phone numbers of great sources that lead to these stories? Huh?
Doesn't this guy know that the loafers are journos who sit at their desks waiting for assignments, and build up forgettable bodies of work with lots of column inches to their credit? The real reporters are out there hoofing it, often requiring time to develop a hot story.
Zell will lose, or totally demoralize, some of the paper's best talent by ruling First & Spring with a ruler.
He wants to know whose inches are longer? Before Sam Zell gets too far along in this silliness, maybe somebody should measure Zell's.