You can take so much cheese off the pizza that nobody will eat it

tHE PRINT media continues to lose elevation, and now the heavy freight is being chopped up for fuel, or just jettisoned. Time Warner, Tribune have announced big asset sales. But the death grip of the stock analysts and the media buyers has not relaxed. Further cuts will be needed. Products will get thinner, pages sizes smaller.

At some point I've been thinking that somebody will throw up a red flag, and yell Gordon Bethune's line, "You can't sell a pizza without cheese." (Okay, the Italians will eat pizza biancha, but have you ever tried it?)

The surprise is, the flag went up last Thursday. And bigger surprise, the umpire is Dean Baquet, editor of the Los Angeles Times.

Responding to a group of distinguished Angelenos who had sent a letter of protest to the owners of the LA Times, Dean said, "I just have a difference of opinion with the owners of Tribune about what the size of the staff should be. To make substantial reductions would significantly damage the quality of the paper."

"Times Publisher Jeffrey M. Johnson said he agreed with his editor that 'newspapers can't cut their way into the future. We have to carefully balance economic realities with serving our readers.'" The Times reported.

The Tribune must have been shocked, since they had to have assumed that Dean would play ball after John Carroll, according to rumor, quit last year over the exact same issue.

John was an enormously charismatic leader in the newsroom, and Dean was by comparison harder, driven, intellectual. John played down how smart he was. With self-deprecating charm he reorganized the newsroom and went on to sweep the Pulitzers. Keep in mind that the LA Times had already become a very good newspaper, thanks to a twenty-year push by Otis Chandler, who with inherited ink-in-the-veins wanted to bring the paper out of its primitive oligarchic past to rival the New York Times. In a deep rage after the Staples scandal, it was Chandler who pushed the sale to the Chicago company. Tribune a similar past, but was a few steps back on the evolutionary ladder.

With Carroll's honeymoon suddenly ended, Dean didn't had much time for softball. He had to be smart and fast, and he didn't have time to lobby the newsroom, where many suspected that he was just doing the Tribune's bidding. However, in his first year, he made some cuts in the newsroom, but the paper did not lose its edge, either in terms of reporting or presentation. (Judgement on design should be suspended until the next round of changes gets in the paper, but the SND judges gave about the same number of awards this year as last---for a total of more than 200 prizes in three years.)

Assuming you read a lot of the news online, skip the New York Times and the Guardian for a few days and use the LAT as your main resource. On Iraq and the White House, on pop culture and entertainment, on broad-stroke business stories outside of the equities markets, LA is often first, and usually better written. Check out any of these stories from the Sunday edition.

  • U.S. Agencies Outsourcing Intelligence
  • Sick but Insured? Think Again
  • Cambodia Greets a Cash Invasion
  • It Can't Be Any More Unusual
    Cozying Up to the Bad Guy Next Door
  • Steve Lopez: Is Fishhook Baited for Jerry Brown?
  • Editorial: No Rubber Stamp for Bush
  • American Intelligence - Still Stupid
  • 800 Words: Blue Meets Blue

This range is not possible with a small staff. You might be able to do it with fewer than the 1,000 Dean's, but would he get to pick who stays, and who gets replaced? Staff-building is the hardest part of news management, as Yahoo News and Google News are just beginning to learn.

Meanwhile, today may be the day that the Tribune mountain comes to Dean's Mohammed, since it would not look good to call Baquet and Johnson to the Chicago carpet. With the Chandlers, the Tribune's biggest shareholders, pushing to get cash out of their shares and people like David Geffen stepping up as potential buyers of the LA Times, it could be worse. The Tribune could fire the two of them.

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This is how Gordon Bethune, when he was CEO of Continental Airlines, often used the line about pizza when he heard suggestions that the company trim services to cut spending.

Back in the 80s at American Airlines, Robert Crandall had taken a single olive out of each salad, saving some $40,000 a year, and it started a trend. As CEO, Crandall implemented the hub-and-spoke system, the frequent-flyer program, and the on-the-fly reservation load-management, but his epitaph will read, "The Man Who Took an Olive Out of the Salad."

It's gotten much worse since then. American doesn't even have a salad in coach on most flights unless you want to buy it, although Continental has tried to hold on to customer service. They're running a TV spot showing flight attendants grabbing a pillow out from behind the head of a sleeping passenger, and forcing another to spit out a peanut. The voiceover: “While other airlines are taking things away, Continental still offers things like pillows, blankets and meals at mealtime.?

Of course the core business of the airlines is getting you from place to place safely and on-time. Food and pillows may seem like so much fluff. But upper management at newspaper and magazine companies are thinking that editorial content is the fluff, and maybe we can take a little out bit by bit, save some money and no one will notice. They are desperately looking for a story to tell the stock market, which has begun to regard print media as anachronism, like the gas-light industry in 1900. The companies still make good money, unlike airlines, but the market is not fair, or intelligent or logical. (Somebody said, "If the market could be logical, we wouldn't need a market.")

When I first started paying attention to the business side o f the print media, there the vogue word in the business was, "franchise," as though newspapers and magazines were granted a license to make money. They thought this would go on for ever. The publishers had become institutions.

The entrepreneurs with ink running in their veins, the Henry Luces and the Joseph Pulitzers, are long gone. Most current owners are never sold an ad or laid out a page. They look at it all as an investment.

At first they hired revenue guys to run their newspapers and magazines. Now the finance boys and the lawyers have taken over. They are primarily interested in the company's relationship with the shareholders. If you held a gun to their heads and told them to write a headline, they would say, "Go ahead and shoot." Even at with a private company like Hearst, the president and chairman focus on growth and profit, quarter by quarter. Acquisitions are made for growth; assets are sold to get cash. The groups have gotten bigger and bigger, but the shareholders are less and less happy.

Management has to step up the efforts to richen the mix. When advertising sales fall, costs must be cut. In a big media group it is hard to get the information to do this intelligently or even efficiently. So the cuts go to the bone.

We've been seeing this for a while. The small regional dailies have tiny staffs of underpaid reporters gathering dry bits of local news. The third-level metros seem to be all wire-copy and syndicated features. The big magazines, stressed by the collapse of newsstand sales, have switched to all-celebrity covers, with plenty of advertiser-focused service inside. Illustrations, photos stories, long-form reporting are gone.

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Dean's actions are not as rash or startling as the very public resignation five years ago of Jay Harris, the publisher of the San Jose Mercury-News. (Where is Tony Ridder now?) But he has certainly run down the curtain on Act Two.

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