High anxiety, new realities at LA Times Online

Staffers are having a hard time adjusting to new marching orders from the Tribune Co.

This column appeared Jan. 25, 2001, in the Online Journalism Review. Here’s the version on the OJR site.

In this package:

Soul-searching time for online news units

Essay: Gut check time for new media

High anxiety, new realities at LA Times Online

Dot-com content sites try some new tricks

By J.D. Lasica

What a difference a merger makes.

A year ago the 100-person online staff at the Los Angeles Times was riding high in the digital saddle. New media director Leah Gentry, widely admired in online news circles, called her team “the hardest working band in show business.” On one occasion, she brought in bottles of champagne and toasted her staff when the site blasted through another traffic milestone.

The partying stopped on March 13, when the Tribune Co. acquired Times Mirror Co. for $8 billion. The takeover became official in June.

At first, the Times’ online staffers, like their print counterparts, gave the benefit of the doubt to their new corporate stepparents after being assured that the takeover would result in no job cuts.

But detente gave way to cynicism less than seven months later when the Tribune Co. announced that 34 employees in its Internet division — including 20 staffers at latimes.comwere being laid off “to realize operating efficiencies from its merger with Times Mirror Co. and accelerate its progress toward profitability,” Tribune Co. spokesman John Lyday said at the time.

The Times’ online division is currently under a mandate to turn in a $5 million profit during the current calendar year, according to two sources. The internal goal is to hit $21 million in ad revenue, one said.

The Times’ online division is currently under a mandate to turn in a $5 million profit during the current calendar year, according to two sources. The internal goal is to hit $21 million in ad revenue, one said. While ambitious, the goal of profitability may be within reach because capital costs were removed from the Times’ books and are now assigned to Chicago.

The heavy-handed way in which the layoffs came down still gnaws at several current and former Times online employees. “I can tell you there’s some skepticism at being able to believe the Tribune Co. when they now say there’ll be no more layoffs,” says an online staffer who requested that his name be withheld.

The timing of the staff cuts was particularly troublesome to many. The online unit’s Calendar Live staff had spent months working 60 to 80 hours a week to migrate the entertainment section from the original CitySearch database platform to a proprietary Tribune platform dubbed Jackhammer. (Originally designed to smash Microsoft Sidewalk to pieces, Jackhammer allows other Tribune Co. properties to share complex story packages created at latimes.com, and vice-versa.)

Recalls one of the laid-off staffers: “When the conversion was finally completed, the team had a little party with cake and Coke, and everybody’s e-mail in-box beeped with a message saying to attend a mandatory meeting the next morning. They thought they were going to get bonus checks, because of all the seven-day weeks they’d put in. Instead, three-quarters of the Calendar Live staff got fired.”

“When the conversion was finally completed, the team had a little party with cake and Coke, and everybody’s e-mail in-box beeped with a message saying to attend a mandatory meeting… They thought they were going to get bonus checks… Instead, three-quarters of the Calendar Live staff got fired.”

A spokeswoman for Tribune Interactive president David Hiller said he couldn’t fit an interview into his schedule, and requests for comment from executives at latimes.com went unanswered.

Any corporate merger is difficult for the staffs involved, but what’s especially nettlesome to the proud and talented online crew is that their wings have been clipped, despite being told that latimes.com was the flagship of Tribune Interactive.

Another current staffer who requested anonymity sums up the climate this way: “The environment here is different today, but it’s related more to the merger than the layoffs. We went from being a very independently run shop to being part of a larger unit that’s very centralized. We can’t run on our own like we used to do, and a lot of people have not adjusted well to that. Even now you have people who are fairly open about their displeasure with what’s going on.”

It may be too early to gauge the long-term impact of the staff reductions on the site, but executive producer Elaine Zinngrabe says the staff is responding admirably.

“We have significantly fewer people in editorial, so there’s a lot more work and responsibilities that people have to pick up. You won’t be able to put out the same volume or quality of product as before, so you consider more carefully everything you do,” she said. “So far we’ve done a good job of keeping the things we used to do, at the same high level of quality. The remaining staff has rebounded strongly, and everyone’s pitched in.”

Gentry, who left the Times in late August to become vice president of content strategy at Circle.com, agrees. “It’s a much tighter band now. They’re working even harder, and it shows. They continue to do a lot of remarkable things.”

Zinngrabe acknowledged that the loss of one-fifth of the Times’ online staff has resulted in “significantly less content than there used to be” in Calendar Live. Producers now have responsibility for two or three sections, such as movies, music or restaurants, instead of just one.

The loss of a graphic artist has resulted in fewer images throughout the site. Calendar Live’s Web coverage of music, movies, entertainment and nightlife has been drastically curtailed, replaced with repurposed content from the print editions.

Aside from Calendar Live, Zinngrabe says, there’s been little impact on the site’s content so far. “We’re getting more cooperation from the newsroom than before,” she says, with midday filings for the Web site on significant stories. Indeed, there was no falloff in the number of special reports published by latimes.com in the weeks after the presidential election.

Three staffers who were let go say they think the site is being updated less frequently during the day now. And one current staffer says: “We’re posting fewer audio files now, simply because we have fewer content editors. There’s also less opportunity to go after the difficult packages. Now we tend to go for the easy pickings rather than the difficult stuff.”

Meantime, the latimes.com staff will be working out of new digs next month, as the lease expires on the online unit’s cloistered space at the Bradbury Building. The move back to the main Times Building has been planned for some time, with the online unit taking up corporate floor space until a major newsroom renovation is completed in two to three years.

Plans call for integrating the online staff with the print newsroom and with certain units of Tribune-owned KTLA, Channel 5, sources say. Tribune operates similar multimedia newsrooms with cross-platform assignment desks in Chicago and Orlando.

Derek Fromson, who was laid off soon after receiving a Top of the Times special recognition award for his multimedia package 25 Years After Vietnam, says, “That may be one of the real fallouts from all this. They’ll do some of the same kinds of projects, but they’ll scale it back rather than attempt anything too ambitious.”

Still on tap for the coming year, according to insiders: a redesign (again) of latimes.com to bring it onto the same platform as other Tribune Co. properties, and an initiative for the Web site’s content to be made available to consumers on wireless devices.

But some worry whether the Times and other online news sites will be able to sustain their commitment to quality journalism in this era of leaner, meaner budgets.

Derek Fromson, who was laid off soon after receiving a Top of the Times special recognition award for his multimedia package 25 Years After Vietnam, says, “That may be one of the real fallouts from all this. They’ll do some of the same kinds of projects, but they’ll scale it back rather than attempt anything too ambitious.”

At the Times, traffic has never been heavy to its labor-intensive Special Reports sections. “The Oscars, Emmys, Golden Globes — those are the big traffic drivers,” says Fromson, who’s looking at various online job opportunities.

While it’s certain that the Times will continue to invest resources in special projects, it’s less certain that they’ll be able to sustain the depth or breadth of the first-rate work that’s come before. “From what we’re seeing at The New York Times and elsewhere, my sense is that the whole idea of original content is falling by the wayside,” he says.

If the budget cutbacks continue, it’s likely that enterprise journalism on the Web will be first in line at the guillotine.

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JD Lasica
Written by JD Lasica
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