The Case for Citizen Ownership of the Los Angeles Times

    by Mark Glaser
    September 21, 2006

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    Corporate ownership of daily newspapers is reaching the breaking point, especially now at the Los Angeles Times, which is owned by the Chicago-based Tribune Company media conglomerate. The newspaper is facing the same problem that hundreds of other newspapers are facing: Owners and stockholders who want profit growth each year, who want to cut back on editorial staff, and who could care less about the communities and people who actually read and gain insight from the newspaper. And there’s that massive problem of people reading dead-tree edition newspapers less and reading electronic online versions more — leading to smaller profits at the moment.

    So if the corporate owners of the Los Angeles Times are growing impatient with stagnating profits, why not let the readers take charge of the destiny of the paper, not just as citizen journalists but as citizen owners? The NFL has its “Personal Seat Licenses” for various stadiums, and the Green Bay Packers have issued stock four times so their fans can buy a piece of the team. Local public broadcasting and even Salon.com have survived for years with the support of membership drives and pledges from the community. So why not newspapers?

    Here are some supporting reasons for how the Los Angeles public could take charge of their greatest journalistic asset and make the business thrive in a new media world where readers are taking control in so many ways:


    White knights lead in funding.
    The first problem for public ownership is that Tribune Co. has said repeatedly that it won’t sell the L.A. Times. However, three local billionaires have written letters to Tribune saying they are willing to buy the newspaper. In a public ownership scenario, perhaps the moneyed trio could help provide financial muscle in a buyout offer, as long as they are also bought into the mission of the newspaper as serving the public above all, and being run more as a non-profit (see item below).

    Community leaders take a role.
    Already, local leaders including former Secretary of State Warren Christopher and USC Annenberg School of Communications dean Geoffrey Cowan have written an open letter to the Tribune Co. warning about more editorial cuts and how they would jeopardize the quality of the newspaper. These leaders can do more than just write letters to the current owners. They can pledge to help be evangelists for the Times as an important public resource. Their role would be as community outreach, helping to be the face for changing media in Los Angeles.

    Reading public contributes money, intelligence, fact-checking.
    This is the complicated but doable part. The millions of people who read the L.A. Times each day in print and online will be tapped to help the newspaper become a more independent, inclusive voice of its community. Yes, they can donate money to the cause and become citizen owners, but they can also contribute story ideas, hyper-local intelligence on happenings in their neighborhoods and at their businesses, and the fact-checking that bloggers have become famous for. Let them earn points toward more ownership for each good deed they do, for every dollar they contribute, for every good story lead they have, for every time they dig up something wrong with a story that’s published. (Note: This is an overlapping value and goal of the NewAssignment.net professional/amateur journalism project at NYU.)


    Times creates a transparent, inclusive newsroom.
    One of the biggest criticisms of big city newspapers such as the L.A. Times, New York Times and others is that they do their most important work of assigning stories and determining editorial priorities in private meetings of top editors. But if they want to remain relevant to readers — and involve those readers — they should make the newsgathering process more transparent and inclusive. One great example of this is already happening at the Spokane (Wash.) Spokesman-Review, where its Transparent Newsroom online includes live streaming video of its news meetings and invitations to the public to sit on meetings in person. That experiment recently won a Knight-Batten Award of Distinction.

    Business structure is non-profit.
    Already, a handful of newspapers have survived and thrived owned by charitable trusts as non-profits. These include the St. Petersburg Times (owned by the Poynter Institute) and the Union Leader in Manchester, N.H. (owned by the Nackey S. Loeb School of Communications). They’re not setting the business world on fire, but that’s not the point. The idea is for the newspaper to make enough money to continue serving the public, without the pressures of more, more, more profits from Wall Street.

    Citizen owners help direct publication.
    It will take creative minds to make a publicly-owned Los Angeles Time tick. How much influence will the people with the most money invested get? How much control will each citizen-owner really have in decision-making? The solution might require a Constitutional Convention-style meeting, perhaps with online webcasting components, where the public and community leaders can shape a charter that gives top editors a strong role in herding ideas into stories, includes the audience in the process, and strengthens the firewall between editorial and advertising and business interests.

    I realize this is only a half-baked solution to the crisis afflicting so many local newspapers across the country and world, but perhaps it can start an important discussion about corporate ownership of local media and how communities can help use technology and participation to help shape the future of journalism.

    What do you think? Do you think citizen ownership could work or do you have other ideas to help stave off future staff cuts at the L.A. Times? Or perhaps you think big newspapers don’t deserved to be saved. Share your thoughts in the comments below.

    UPDATE: Timothy Noah at Slate has helpfully posted both the letter to Tribune Co. from L.A. community leaders, as well as the response from Tribune. The format is what Slate calls a “Hot Document,” with Noah giving commentary on some of the highlighted passages and providing context. One of my favorite comments from Noah:

    I don’t mean to dump too much on the [Chicago] Tribune. It’s far from a terrible paper. Much fine work has been done there over the years, and it has incubated lots of talent, including the L.A. Times’ present editor, Dean Baquet. But a company that hews to the narrative [Tribune chairman] FitzSimons lays out here, which makes the Chicago Tribune the benchmark for greatness, is ill-equipped to appreciate the L.A. Times.

    Tagged: business newspapers
    • stuart markoff

      I’ve read Mark Glaser just after attending a media discussion of the policy Inst. of the Johns Hopkins. One bright student asked why the
      newspapers aren’t more proactive in training young people how to read. R & D might surely come up with units for classroom immersion.
      Mencken, after all, used to visit City College high school to meet students on a regular basis. Of course, then–late 40’s and early 50’s–many high schools had weekly papers with
      income from three quarter page cigarette ads.
      Few schools publish with such frequency anymore. If journalism gets studied at all, it would probably be through something like a current events club, entirely extracurricular.
      And why not guest columns every week from the general public? SLM

    • stuart markoff

      I’ve read Mark Glaser’s 9/21 piece on the L.A. TIMES (owned by the same folks who own the Baltimore SUN) just after attending a media discussion of the Policy Inst. of the Johns Hopkins. One bright student asked why the
      newspapers aren’t more proactive in training young people how to read. R & D might surely come up with units for classroom immersion.
      Mencken, after all, used to visit City College high school to meet students on a regular basis. Of course, then–late 40’s and early 50’s–many high schools had weekly papers with
      income from three quarter page cigarette ads.
      Few schools publish with such frequency anymore. If journalism gets studied at all, it would probably be through something like a current events club, entirely extracurricular.
      And why not guest columns every week from the general public? SLM

    • Know what? I will use your idea for a brief introduction about “Consumer and Producers” in journalism on a conference of the german Bundeszentrale fuer politische Bildung next week in Frankfurt. I am interested how people react to that idea. On the other hand: There are more examples of this kind of newspapers, take the German “taz – die tageszeitung” as another example (they have a “Genossenschaft”). But the “taz” never made it to the point where that really gave them freedom in business-things.

    • Stuart,
      I think a lot of journalists still do go into college and high school classes to talk with them and try to pass on knowledge. I recently visited with a UC Berkeley class and will be speaking via videoconference to a high school in Illinois. I think that’s important work.

      I second your notion about guest columns from the community in the LA Times. I know Michael Kinsley instituted more outside voices when he was running the editorial page, so perhaps that could be expanded with citizen owners…

      Christophe, thanks for the view from Germany. Can you tell me more about the Taz, how it’s run or owned by the public, and why it’s had trouble being a more independent business?

    • I’m all for lower margins, but I am scared scared scared of abandoning the profit motive. Free of the need — the _need_ — that for-profit papers have to remain relevant, I think it’d be way too easy for a complacent nonprofit to simply abandon innovation.

      In my own, limited experience, the main drive for strategic innovation — as opposed to one-off trendy efforts that lack any larger coherence and fade as soon as their advocate tires of them — comes from the corporate level. If you replace our concrete no-really-we-need-your-eyeballs reliance on readers with an abstract and possibly inaccurate “responsibility” to readers, I’m not sure you’ve got a place I want to work.

      A for-profit may only see six feet in front of its face. But what incentive does anybody at a nonprofit have to look past the next payday?

    • leonard glaser

      I like the participating public aproach as much as possible with the proper editing. The more participation, the more public interest and support which will help the bottom line needed by profit or nonprofit newspapers. I’m sorry newspapers are in so much financial trouble. I still look on them as reliable institution needed to make our society educated and free of all sorts of tyranies.

      Newspaper ads give consumers reliable information and help businesses sell products. Maybe more emphasis needs to done to sell the ads.

    • I worry about the non-profit model too. St. Petersberg and Manchester are not the same as the sprawling West Coast megalopolis that is LA. What organization or consortium could handle the paper of record for Southern California?

      One thing is for sure though, saving the paper newspaper will take the sort of creative thinking that you do in this article. One unique thing about LA is its new system of city funded neighborhood councils. Perhaps some of these grassroots organizations could be tapped to power this hyper-local news movement.

    • I agree with some of your comments, and understand why you would be worried about the non-profit model with a metropolitan daily like the LA Times. I concur that non-profits also have their problems, and that asking for handouts and pledge drives don’t always work on an ongoing basis. Plus, if the daily newspaper doesn’t start innovating and thinking in digital terms, it will be irrelevant for everyone in the long run.

      As I said in the post, I’m hoping this idea will at least get people to start thinking outside the current large-chain newspaper model — which I believe is broken. And if LA has started neighborhood councils, as David noted, perhaps they can help develop grassroots movements to support an LA Times that can reach down into the neighborhood level, with a hybrid digital/print model.

    • Ted

      I would read the LA Times if it wasn’t a mouth piece for the Democratic party and actually REPORTED the news instead of trying to USE the “news” to further Democratic causes.
      Case in point: the Front page article about the current Governor of CA making harmless comments about a legislator. (Who was NOT offended by the way). It turns out that the governor’s opponent stole the info from the governor, yet the Times called them “an anonymous source”.

    • The corporate ownership of media is a compound problem, not easily solved by divesting ownership of the media property (the LA Times) because the customers of the business are the advertisers. The same corporations who would be divested of ownership could afford to gradually withdraw and shift their ad buys to a competitive corporate owned newspaper.

    • Fascinating read. I’ve been interested in business structure since I’ve recently gotten interested in a franchise opportunity on http://franchiseexpo.com. Though I intend to run a franchise, I would like to own my own incorporated business someday.

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