More news coming in about the op-ed shuffle at the Los Angeles Times. As I reported in the post below this one, veteran liberal columnist Bob Scheer (the only LATimes opinion writer with a national following) has been canned.
In the best tradition of dinosaur institutions, it took the Times a solid week to finally confirm that move that had been rumor everywhere (Isn't it odd how NEWSpapers are often the last people to report on themselves?).
Anyway, the Times made public its new line-up of op-ed columnists in Thursday afternoon. I have a few reactions. But first...here it is:
* Sunday: Gregory Rodriguez, Jon Chait
* Monday: Niall Ferguson
* Tuesday: Joel Stein
* Wednesday: Max Boot, Erin Aubry Kaplan
* Thursday: Jonah Goldberg, Patt Morrison
* Friday: Rosa Brooks
* Saturday: Meghan Daum
How's that for a non-buzz? A few of the names are new. Others are writers that the Times has already been blending into its mix. Purged from the pages is conservative cartoonist Michael Ramirez; a move that might be considered a sop to Scheer’s audience who absolutely abhorred him.
A couple of noteworthy trends jump out from the list. You’d think with circulation slumping and now a couple of years into futzing with the editorial pages, the mighty Times would pony up to purchase a couple of nationally-known powerhouses.
Unlike the NYTimes or even the WashPo, the LATimes has lacked a signature set of opinion writers. That omission will now continue. With Scheer’s departure, the Times line-up is now bereft of a single, muscular journalist with veteran national and international reporting experience-- the sort of experience,by the way, that is pre-requisite for strong local columnizing in a place like L.A.
They didn’t even steal some proven commodity from another paper. The new list is full of wonks and magazine editors along with a self-obsessed comedy writer and a Gen X autobiographer and memoirist. The only hard-core political writers are conservatives: the extremely dull and excessively ideological Max Boot and the terribly annoying and gossamer-weight propagandist Jonah Goldberg (who by contrast, makes David Brooks seem one of the towering intellects of the modern era).
Oops, sorry. I forgot the New Republic’s Jonathan Chait. Now, why would that be? For those who keep score, Chait is what’s known as neo-liberal i.e. someone barely inside the Democratic Party (and in this case, I’m sorry to say, a very dry, boring writer – the sort of student you’d assign to whip up a term paper, say, on the history of pollution trading credits).
Rosa Brooks, a Virginia law prof and daughter of lefty icon Barbara Ehrenreich, has been writing some provocative fare on the op-ed page for some months now. Good to see her retained.
The other issue made evident by this line-up, is that the new Times columnists are virtually all contract freelancers. The only staff writer I see on the list is Patt Morrison – a witty and wonderfully talented writer
who, unless I’m reading this wrong—has just had her column reduced in frequency of publication. A not very smart move, if true. [Note: LATimes sources note that I am wrong, sort of. Apparently Morrison was told earlier in the week she was plain off the op-ed page, but then somehow got mysteriously restored by the end of the week].
Outsourcing the op-ed slots to freelancers has several less-than-encouraging implications. For one, it saves the Times a lot of money. Instead of having to shell out $100k plus (and bennies) for a staff writer, or twice that much or more for some veteran writer with real national cred, the Times can pay their new opinion scribes a sum closer to $500 or $750 a column with no benefits, by the way. Someone correct me if I’m wrong about this miserly column pay rate… but I don’t think so. I hate to pull back the curtain on the sausage factory, but yes Virgina, you can be both a regular columnist for one of the richest, largest newspapers in the country and still earn less than $50k a year for your efforts. Maybe less than $40K.
As an extension of that principle, the freelance columnists lack both the institutional clout and backing of the powerful L.A. Times and its parent Tribune Company. An editor of National Review or a fellow at some think tank or – a struggling TV hack—writing a column for the Times doesn’t exactly have the punch of, say, a MoDo or some other reasonable facsimile who is a card-carrying staffer.
And with staff cartoonist Ramirez now out, the Times says his replacement will be yet one more potpourri of freelancers. Ramirez was as far to the Right of the Times median readership as his predecessor, Paul Conrad, was to the Left. Both guys were able to survive storms of reader criticism and continue their controversial work precisely because they had a guaranteed job.
The freelance model, by contrast, gives the paper’s management that one word which all employers lust after: “flexibility.” With a flick of a switch, any of these contract writers can disappear overnight through the trap door. I expect, in fact, that this current collection of writers will be hastily dealt in and out of the deck. And a year from now, you can pretty much figure there will be a new and amended list. As I said in my previous post, the L.A. Times, like all American newspapers, is being forced to come up with some bold and innovative strategies to offset declining readership interest and loyalty. This new reshuffle of the editorial pages isn’t one of them.
Link: L.A. Observed on the Scheer-Ramirez trade out.
Link: Matt Welch
Link: Bob Scheer moves cancelled column to Huffington Post.
Link: ThinkProgress on bantam-weight Jonah Goldberg's laughable credentials.