Good journalism sacrificed for profit

By Eric Naing

Chicago billionaire Sam Zell’s purchase of the Tribune Company had many worried about the future of the Chicago Cubs, but it is another cherished Tribune property, The Los Angeles Times, which may suffer the most. As the news and entertainment media converge, journalistic standards are pushed aside in favor of profit. Considering Zell’s very favorable opinion on profit, the worst may be yet to come for LA Times and journalism in general.

Like the Cubs, LA Times has somehow managed to remain prestigious despite ownership which favors profits over quality. Unlike the Cubs, LA Times has a steady record of winning – having received numerous Pulitzer prizes.

When the Tribune Company bought The LA Times in 2000, the newspaper was on decline. Under the stewardship of John Carroll and Dean Baquet, it shifted its focus to broad, in-depth stories about serious national and international issues. But despite earning over a billion dollars and turning profits of over 200 million a year, the Tribune Company demanded more and more cost-cutting measures to appease its stockholders.

These cuts came at the expense of the paper’s quality. A truly world-class newspaper needs countless people and dollars for writing, photographs, research, foreign bureaus, etc. Tribune Company’s constant demand for cuts from The Los Angeles, despite its profitability and even after numerous and significant cuts has already been made, is disgusting.

A recent Times column by Thomas S. Mulligan says that Zell’s interest in the Tribune Company “is purely economic – not egotism, not passion for the company-owned Chicago Cubs, not a soft spot for newspapers.” This does not bode well for either property. Sam Zell is a man purely driven by profit and while his ability to make money is impressive, the effect his profit-driven agenda would have on LA Times or the Cubs would be disastrous.

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Charles Bobrinskoy of Ariel Capital Management, formerly one of the largest shareholders of Tribune stock, told PBS’s “Frontline” that in-depth stories that influence the powerful and win awards are apparently “not what readers want.” And to some extent he is right. Judging by newspaper sales or TV ratings, the last thing most people want are dense, fact-filled, news stories.

When the news is decided democratically, then news becomes entertainment. As television news viewers and newspaper purchasers, we vote with our wallets. And as ratings and sales have shown, we like endless stories about Anna Nicole Smith and diaper-clad astronauts. The dramatic rise in celebrity-oriented news is a direct result of journalism being held to the same standard as entertainment.

Cable news is a wasteland. Hard-hitting, investigative news stories are being dropped in favor of human interest stories and tabloid journalism. As long as the ratings continue to rise, stories about Iraq will be ignored in favor of stories about Paris Hilton.

To some extent, the Internet and blogs are trying to pick up some of the slack from the slowly fading newspaper industry. Internet reporters are responsible for hard-hitting and extremely detailed journalism. But almost every Internet news site that is not already directly associated with a national newspaper or television network lacks the resources to travel abroad or to interview VIPs.

As a lifelong Illinoisan, I want to apologize to Los Angeles for what our state has done to your newspaper. Thanks to the profit-driven agenda of the Tribune Company and its shareholders, a once respected and award-winning LA Times has been cut down.

At this point, all we can hope for is that like with the Cubs, Zell is willing to sell off the paper to someone who genuinely cares about it and who sees value in it beyond ever increasing profitability. When the standards for journalism and entertainment collide, we are given Nancy Grace.

What is happening to The Los Angeles Times is happening to news media outlets all over.