Wednesday, June 29, 2011

The Deal From Hell


According to journalist James O’Shea in his new book, The Deal From Hell: How Moguls and Wall Street Plundered Great American Newspapers, there is no shortage of bad guys in the epic story of the decline of newspapers. This is especially true in the case of the Los Angeles Times, a paper once edited by O’Shea. His is a fascinating, riveting tale, especially for those of us alarmed by the disintegration and rapid decline of print journalism. These days, newspapers are becoming relics of yesteryear, archaic artifacts for the culture museum, a disturbing development for journalists and readers who once created and consumed the insightful, in-depth reporting found on those ink-stained pages of newsprint.

In his book, O’Shea is self-effacing, attempting to be clear-eyed and forthcoming about his own role in the L.A. Times disaster. But make no mistake; he had a major part in the trials and tribulations of the paper during those days, and The Deal From Hell is his rationalization and defense of his own participation in the difficult decisions made during that time. The editor-in-chief of a major metropolitan paper once wielded great power in matters of politics, culture, and civic life. With the rapidly declining powers of his office, O’Shea could not save the paper and restore it to its former glory of the years under journalism titan Otis Chandler. He fights the good fight, but is simply another middle manager subjected to the whims of vacuous corporate executives.

O’Shea makes it clear that the overall decline of print journalism is not easy to diagnose, nor can blame be assigned to a single phenomenon in our culture. He believes that the shift of newspaper ownership from privately owned family businesses to public corporations traded on Wall Street has much to do with the decline. He singles out old-school journalists who resisted change as another problem, as well as the changes in the working lives of Americans, the lack of disposable leisure time, the rise of cable TV news channels, and plain old problems with delivery. In the story of the Times Mirror-Tribune merger that crippled a number of print outlets in addition to the L.A. Times, O’Shea cites a focus on continuing to increase profits over serving the public good as the central cause for the paradigm shift.

O’Shea quotes Frank Knight, part of the Knight Ridder newspaper empire, who says that print journalism is a tricky business because it is really four businesses in one: editorial content, which should have top priority; the business side, including advertising; production; and distribution. Each area has its own pitfalls and danger zones, but O’Shea believes when the walls between the business side and the editorial side break down, major problems ensue.

Never was this breakdown more apparent than in the infamous Staples Center-Sunday magazine scandal. The Staples complex is a 400 million dollar sports and entertainment venue in downtown Los Angeles. The Times entered into an agreement with the Staples organization to publish a 168-page Sunday magazine section featuring a series of puff pieces trumpeting the grand opening of the center. The paper and the management of Staples agreed to split the ad revenues from the publication, thereby obliterating the line between journalism and advertising. Articles became ad copy, not objective reporting, and this was only the beginning. The Times now wraps major movie ads around the paper as faux front pages, complete with same style, type and layout of the real front page underneath, confusing readers with ads that look like news. O’Shea takes pains to point out that newspaper front pages are sacred cows in journalism, the one place in the paper that readers can expect no ad placement, only the top stories in the news.

O’Shea gives us more than a peak behind the scenes of the L.A. Times-Tribune merger and subsequent sale. He rips the cover off and exposes the soft, white underbelly of the deal, detailing the legal maneuvering, the surviving Chandler family members’ greed, the incoming executives’ sexual misbehavior, and the pornographic excess of bonuses and payouts, a golden shower of parachutes as CEOs and corporate officers raped and pillaged the company they were supposed to serve and then bailed, leaving behind a sinking ship.

The most evil of bad guys is Sam Zell, real estate cretin and hero of the unwashed counterculture posers. He passes his ignorance off as outside-the-box thinking, but it is clear he had it in for journalists from the get-go, a caste of public servant for which he has only loathing and disgust. He buys Tribune to dismantle it, and it remains to be seen if this foul-mouthed, snake oiler with deep pockets gets what he deserves as the story winds its way through bankruptcy court.

Where O’Shea goes a bit hysterical is in his negative assessment of bloggers and news aggregate websites like LAObserved. Yes, there is a lot of hot air blowing across the blogosphere, but arguably there are bloggers who have broken major stories and who do follow the precepts of journalistic integrity. News aggregate websites like LAObserved actually spread the good work of journalists in print and on the internet, bringing readers to news sites and journalism publications. O’Shea attacks LAObserved editor Kevin Roderick for doing his job and publishing revealing memos and missives from Times editors, but it seems like sour grapes when a life-long reporter and secret-sharer like O’Shea complains about having his own secrets revealed. Did he really think his actions should be off limits to public scrutiny? His whining in this part of the book is disingenuous to say the least.

The Deal From Hell is an intense and interesting piece of work. O’Shea’s years as a reporter and his participation in the events described in the book make him uniquely qualified to tell this story. He does an excellent job of explaining the complex financial dealings of the merger and the details of each step and term of the process. If journalism is the first draft of history, James O’Shea has moved us forward into the realm of understanding as we are faced with a less knowledgeable future here in the dark ages of the alleged information revolution.

4 comments:

Vicky the Archivist said...

Terrific review. I'm more eager than ever to read it, having lived through much of that disaster and seeing so many talented people -- some very close to home -- let go.

I wonder, though, amid the ongoing technological revolution whether people accustomed to reading everything online will actually recognize good journalism when they see it. More to the point, whether they'll understand how crucial it is to sustaining a democracy. We live in exciting times.

Paul L. Martin said...

I'll bring the book for you on Tuesday, Vicky. I think the Times loss was the Mount's good fortune. So much history needs preserving there in those stacks. I fear people today cannot tell the difference between real journalism that actually is "fair and balanced" from the fictionalists at say, Fox News. We need another journalism renaissance like after "All The President's Men."

jguywrite said...

I got my degree in journalism & have worked for several dailies & weeklies. It's my first love & it makes me sad, what's happening to newspapers. I don't think newspapers should go public. It makes them accountable to shareholders instead of the public.

I remember reading about the LA Times arrangement w/ Staples & I was appalled. That kind of thing is becoming more the norm.

By the way, your writing is killer. I could feel your sense of umbrage as I was reading this piece.

Paul L. Martin said...

It took me awhile to find literary journalism as my particular calling in the writing field. I plowed ahead in a dismal attempt at fiction for a time, but realized it was not for me. What adds to my anger and disappointment here is that just when I became such a convert to the mission and importance of print journalism, the whole thing went bust. Even journalists with years of publication credits are scrambling for new avenues to publication. And we need journalism and good nonfiction writing now more than ever. My hope is that somehow, print journalism will find a way to a rebirth online. But the idea of pleasing shareholders over representing the public is a killer and must be abandoned. At the end of the day, I believe that good writing will win over, and readers will realize what they are missing. Until then, we forge on...