L.A. page-turners

Investors have different takes on improving paper

The debate is on about whether Los Angeles would be better served by having the L.A. Times owned by the Chicago-based Tribune Co. or a local billionaire like David Geffen, Ron Burkle or Eli Broad. At issue is the quality of the paper’s local coverage, among other things.

But when you look closer at what constitutes “better” when it comes to covering L.A., it’s clear that not everyone’s on the same page.

In the Sept. 12 letter sent by 20 prominent Los Angelenos to Tribune chief Dennis FitzSimmons (which in part spurred the Times’ now-fired publisher Jeff Johnson to speak out against Tribune), they urged the Times to become a sort of journalistic civics lesson.

“What is required here for our region to function well is more — not less — news coverage, particularly of the civic, political and cultural life of the region,” they wrote. Key among the lessons they’d like to see the Times impart is that L.A. is “a complex network of business, government, community and philanthropic organizations and individuals.”

Someone like Geffen, who has made a fortune being more attuned to what people actually want to watch and listen to, might not make the same kind of mistake. In private conversations, he’s said that more lively coverage from the paper’s sports section would be among his top priorities, followed by business and entertainment reporting.

Though it’s not clear that anyone is willing to pay the inflated price for the paper that Tribune would demand for its largest asset, the irony of the current debate over local vs. Chicago ownership is that since Dean Baquet took over the paper last year, the Times staff has seemed to take more pleasure in covering the interesting stories that occur around them.

It’s a pleasant change from the Times’ traditional knack for transforming a quirky metropolis like Los Angeles into a drab collection of faceless commissions and meandering six-part series.

Many on Spring Street mark Feb. 22 as the date that things started to change: That was when a story headlined “So Speedy, So Exclusive, So Expensive, So Totaled” ran on the front page of its California Section. It chronicled the mysterious crash of a rare $1 million Ferrari Enzo on PCH in Malibu.

After the story proved a hit on the paper’s Web site — so far this year, it’s still among the top 10 most-read stories — the metro desk stayed on it, assigning reporters to stay on the story even as it went in some unexpected places.

Managing editor Leo Wolinsky says the big Internet traffic wasn’t the only reason the paper stayed on the story. But it was part.

“Certainly we were finding as we did the story every day that the story was getting tremendous traffic all the time,” he says. “It told another story about L.A. that you couldn’t do by covering an institution.”

Since then, the paper has seemed more likely to latch onto livelier local news like the saga of little old ladies who were murdering homeless men for insurance payouts or the mystery over Youtube star Lonelygirl15 and the involvement of local power center, CAA.

The Times might not yet be (let alone want to be) the New York Post when it comes to turning its city into a daily serving of drama and intrigue. But it’s certainly a lot better than a billionaire-funded civics lesson.

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