LOS ANGELES (CN) – Here are excerpts from a blistering email that Los Angeles Times editor James O’Shea sent to his staff after being fired for resisting newsroom budget cuts ordered by publisher David Hiller and the Tribune Co. O’Shea, who last weekend became the fourth top editor at the Times to be fired or quit in the past two years for resisting newsroom staff cuts, called the Tribune’s management approach “simply stupid.”
Here are excerpts from O’Shea’s farewell to his troops: “One thing I want put on the record … is that I disagree completely with the way that this company allocates resources to its newsrooms, not just here but at Tribune newspapers all around the country. That system is at the core of my disagreements with [publisher] David [Hiller]. I think the current system relies too heavily on voodoo economics and not enough on the creativity and resourcefulness of journalists. … Journalists and not accountants should seize responsibility for the financial health of our newspapers so journalists can make decisions about the size of our staffs and how much news remains in our papers and web sites.
“The biggest challenge we face journalists and dedicated newspaper folks alike – is to overcome this pervasive culture of defeat, the psychology of surrender that accepts decline as inevitable. This mindset plagues our business and threatens our newspapers and livelihoods. … A dollar’s worth of smart investment is worth far more than a barrel of budget cuts.
“This company, indeed, this industry, must invest more in solid, relevant journalism. We must integrate the speed and agility of the Internet with the news judgment and editorial values of the newsroom, values that are more important than ever as the hunger for news continues to surge and gossip pollutes the information atmosphere. Even in hard times, wise investment – not retraction – is the long-term answer to the industry’s troubles. We must build on our core strength, which is good, accurate reporting, the backbone of solid journalism, the public service that helps people make the right decisions about their increasingly complex lives. We must tell people what they want to know and – even more important – what they might not want to know, about war, politics, economics, schools, corruption and the thoughts and deeds of those who lead us. We need to tell readers more about Barack Obama and less about Britney Spears. We must give a voice to those who can’t afford a megaphone. And we must become more than a marketing slogan. …
“Lastly I want to make it clear that I didn’t quit. Anyone in a top newsroom management job during tough times always wrestles with a crucial question: Where is the line? At what point do you go from ‘I can deal with this’ to ‘this is simply wrong.’ When I was Managing Editor of the Chicago Tribune, I always thought my line was 600 newsroom employees. If the publisher demanded cuts that would take the newsroom below that level, I would leave because I felt staffing would slip to a level that would not allow me to sustain the quality newspaper that the community deserved. The Trib had 610 people in the newsroom when I left.
“So when I got here, I wondered anew: Where’s my line: Would it be a newsroom of 800 people? 700? But then I realized the folly of that kind of thinking. I’d been around the accountants and their ‘metrics’ too long. The line you draw is this: Do I believe in the course we’ve set for the future? If the answer is Yes, if I thought the LA Times could resolve its problems by getting smaller and smaller, by being gradually diminished, then I would stay. If not, (and I don’t) then I told myself to take a stand and say enough is enough. If you have to consider closing foreign bureaus and cutting back in other parts of the paper to free up the money needed to cover the Olympics and the most historic political campaign in modern times, well to me that’s no plan for the future, that is not serving the interest of readers. It is simply stupid.”
The Times’ previous publisher, Jeffrey Johnson, and its editor, Dean Baquet, were fired in 2006 for resisting budget cuts and newsroom firings. John Carroll, who preceded Baquet as editor, quit in 2005 to protest newsroom firings. The Times also lost two editorial page editors in short order, Michael Kinsley and Andres Martinez.
The L.A. Times’ operating profit margin was 16 percent through the first three quarters of 2007, The New York Times reported today, down from 19 percent the previous year. Debt from Chicago real estate magnate Sam Zell’s $8.2 billion takeover of the Times reduced net revenue by 4 percent.
O’Shea argued that keeping the Times’ news budget at $120 million for the coming year amounted to a cut, as it planned to cut overseas bureaus and news coverage would necessarily be increased during a year that will include a U.S. presidential election and the Beijing Olympics.
The Times’ classified ad revenue decreased by 18 percent last year, and real estate ads were down by 26 percent. Newspapers nationwide are earning slimmer profit margins than they did before the rise of Internet advertising, when profit margins for dailies often approached 20 percent, and the nationwide real estate fiasco has slammed their most dependable source of ad revenue, real estate ads.
Auto ads are traditionally newspapers’ second-largest income source. Income from circulation generally accounts for only about 10 percent of a daily newspaper’s income.
Old-time newsies insist the corporate drive for ever-larger profit margins is driving daily newspapers into a death spiral, in which cutting costs to improve profits reduces quality, which cuts into circulation, which reduces ad revenue, which results in more cuts, in an ever-shrinking spiral. This is the trend that O’Shea attacked in his farewell message.