Business & Economy

Why Southern California’s newspapers are having such a tough time right now

The Los Angeles Times building in downtown L.A.
The Los Angeles Times building in downtown L.A.
Mae Ryan/KPCC

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Local and regional newspapers that serve Southern California are going through tough times, leading some to question whether traditional newspapers can survive.  Media experts say local papers need to find ways to prosper online and do it quickly before the Internet kills them off.

Management churn at the Los Angeles Times and deep layoffs coming at 11 Southern California News Group papers (including the Los Angeles Daily News, Orange County Register, Riverside Press-Enterprise, Daily Breeze and others) stem in part from the challenge of how to sustain a newsroom and make a profit when print advertising is fleeing to lower-cost space on the Internet.

Southern California’s local newspapers used to be chock full of ads.  Today, with print advertising dwindling, local papers are thin. So are the ranks of reporters to keep a close eye on City Hall and other local governments and institutions.

USC Journalism professor Gabriel Kahn says that’s a problem.

“Coverage and accountability journalism of local institutions and local governments across the nation has been the most important area where we've seen just a loss of coverage,” Kahn said.

Traditional “papers of record” like the Los Angeles Times can’t earn the same amount of money from the same print newspapers they’ve always put out, Kahn said.

“The challenge of monetizing that content is so much more difficult because now they're competing not just with one or two other newspaper competitors but with all the content on the Internet,” he said.

Newspapers can’t just ditch their print versions and the people and machinery it takes to create them because a single print ad, on average, still brings in more revenue than an online one.  Most digital ads are concentrated on Facebook and Google, not newspaper websites Kahn said. The two Internet giants take in 60 percent of online ad revenues.

A few national papers like the New York Times and Washington Post are finding new audiences as they intensify political coverage or repackage content (like the popular NYT crossword puzzle) for narrow audiences. 

Southern California’s local papers can survive, but they have to figure out new ways to make money on their reporters’ work, Kahn said.

“The bigger problem with the L.A. Times is that they just can't stop shooting themselves in the foot,” Kahn said. “And that's a tremendous distraction at a time when they really need to be focused on reinventing their product and their business.”

Flexing to find ways to profit online is not a new question, said Randy Picht, executive director of the Donald W. Reynolds Journalism Institute at the Missouri School of Journalism. For decades, newspapers have been experimenting. Some papers put up paywalls that require paid subscriptions, while others found that model didn’t work and tore their paywalls down.

But so far, online revenue isn’t enough to replace dwindling print ad revenue.

“Everybody’s searching for the next business model,” Picht said. “It may be that the next business model is just a lot of different things.”

For example, the Texas Tribune puts on live events, and other papers are selling niche online content  or newsletters tailored to specific interests, Picht said.

“The Dallas Morning News have figured out how to charge people for fairly specific pieces of their coverage,” Picht said. “They will let you just get high school sports but you have to pay to pay for it.”

The diminished reach of traditional larger papers has created opportunities for smaller independent online startups to offer front-line local reporting. A few examples are Billy Penn, which covers neighborhoods in Philadelphia, and Berkeleyside in Berkeley, Calif.

USC Journalism professor Michael Parks was the last editor of the Los Angeles Times under Times-Mirror ownership when it was sold in 2000 to the Tribune Company. He’s watched the paper decline in readership and staff during repeated changes in ownership and management.

“The paper has lost its way,” Parks said.

Readers’ needs have changed, he said.

“Do you need a report of this school board meeting when you in fact can watch it on public television?” Parks said. “Do you want the same amount of detail from a court proceeding when you could get it in a brief snippet on the Internet?”

Parks' own news consumption has shifted beyond the three daily papers (L.A. Times, New York Times and Wall Street Journal) he receives. He reads international newspapers’ websites for foreign news, and turns to indie websites like AlhambraSource.org and ColoradoBlvd.net fill in the gaps in local coverage.

He advises L.A. Times new top editor Jim Kirk, whose career has been mostly Chicago-based, to listen to Angelenos.

“Get out in the community build a new vision, a vision for today that will work with the changing demographics the changing needs of the people who are readers, and should be readers,” Parks said.