What can the newspaper industry do to ensure it survives? Faced with that question, the Los Angeles Times – one of the many American papers going through tough times – is trying a new approach. It is turning to a group of people it hopes can help provide the answer: its own reporters and editors.
The LAT has appointed three of its best investigative reporters and half a dozen editors to look into ideas for making the paper more appealing to readers – and advertisers. Also investors. The project has been given the name The Manhattan Project – a hark back to the time during World War 2 when the US was racing to develop the atomic bomb. At the LA Times it is felt the new project requires the same sense of urgency.
The project comes on the heels of a lot of turmoil at the paper – which began when the owners of the paper, The Tribune Company of Chicago, beset by unhappiness among its shareholders and a fall-off in revenue, ordered big cut-backs in staff. Almost 20 per cent of the paper's l,200 newsroom employers have been axed since ownership changed hands six years ago.
When the editor Dean Baquet at first refused to go along with more cuts he was threatened with dismissal. – but he agreed to stay on if he was allowed to try and solve the paper's problems. Hence The Manhattan Project. The feeling at the paper – as expressed by the assistant managing editor Marc Duvoisin who is in charge of the project – is that "think tanks" and consultants are not the way to solve the problem of ensuring the paper's future. Or any other paper for that matter.
One of the other members of the panel, the paper's chief investigations editor Vernon Loeb added: "We realized we had to act fast or we won't have anything to act for" A plan it is hoped will be ready within a couple of months. So far there has been no official comment from the company's headquarters in Chicago, although the plan to make more cuts in staff is said to be still on the table.
Already the group is mulling over several suggestions. They include creating new sections, adding columnists and recruiting readers to report on local stories. Also of course ways of expanding the paper's web site. But basically the aim is how to improve or "re-imagine" the printed edition. The group will also be looking abroad for ideas, to London perhaps and other major newspaper publishing centres in Europe.
How much hope is there that the journalists themselves will come up with ways to save their paper when others have so far failed? Robert Niles, editor of the Online Journalism Review at the University of Southern California, put it this way" None of those legions of other people have come up with the answers, so why shouldn't reporters take a shot?"