Incredible Shrinking Times

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This is Kevin Roderick with LA Observed for KCRW.

If it weren't so sad for the families involved -- and damaging to the community fabric of Los Angeles -- what happened this week at the LA TIMES could be the punch line in a bad joke about how to ruin your brand name.

It started Monday when the publisher was fired. Sam Zell actually came out last week to fire his man in LA, but David Hiller was on vacation.

For the first time in its 120-year history, the Times has no publisher.

It also has no advertising director, no editor to oversee the future of the editorial pages and no editor over the foreign bureaus. These positions are waiting to be filled.

And that was just the small print of the week. The paper also began saying goodbye to 150 editors, reporters, designers, photographers and other journalists.

That's the paper's biggest exodus of talent ever. It removes in one swoop more news staffers than put out the Los Angeles Daily News and the LA Weekly – combined.

The official reason is that the economy is in tough shape. The economics of newspapers are in even rougher shape, so the Times needs to contract.

But these cutbacks feel more like defensive measures to save Sam Zell's reputation as a money maker.

Zell, the Chicago billionaire, leveraged employee pension money last year to buy the Tribune Company. It fit his MO of acquiring distressed assets and trying to turn things around.

He quickly found out he couldn't make the payments. Banks began speculating whether Zell would default on loans.

So he's decided to scrape by through downZelling his newspapers. He's openly derisive at the idea of newspapers serving their communities. That whole public trust thing makes his lip curl.

Zell is also scornful of the kind of people who gather news. By all accounts, he wanted to get rid of even more editors this week -- but was dissuaded for now.

Reinvention is what Zell's in-house yes men like to call it. At the LA Times, it's more like DIS-inventing the biggest news operation in the West.

As part of the cuts, the Book Review and Sunday Opinion section are being killed. The driving section -- Highway 1 -– gone. The Thursday Guide section is gone too – good luck trying to find out what's happening this weekend.

Every section of the paper is thinner. The content a little weaker – or a lot weaker, depending on who got laid off or chose to leave in disgust.

Among those who opted out is the United Nations bureau chief Maggie Farley, a Times veteran who emailed me that she was "disheartened by what has been done to our great newspaper."

Marla Cone, one of the paper's last remaining environment specialists, also quit. "I simply lost hope," she said in an email to other U.S. environment reporters. She called the Times "in disarray," no longer able to serve its readers well.

This sentiment has been heard a lot this week. Josh Getlin, an ex-City Hall reporter whose latest beat was covering the publishing business in New York, put it this way:

"The paper we knew and cared about is fast disappearing, and the real losers are the people of Los Angeles."

He's right.

The cruel truth is that this week was probably just a mid-step on the way to a Los Angeles Times you have even less reason to read. In print or on the Web.

With less ability to penetrate deeply on much of anything.

It's especially galling because the Times once had such lofty aspirations, and for another key reason.

The Times sits at the top of the news food chain in LA. What it doesn't report, the TV stations and the smaller papers usually don't report either.

And that's scary.

For KCRW, this has been Kevin Roderick with LA Observed.