Saving the News

Hosted by

This is Kevin Roderick with LA Observed for KCRW.

Anyone in L.A. who thinks thriving, independent fearless news reporting is important has to be feeling pretty grim this week.

While attention has been focused on the financial troubles at the Museum of Contemporary Art, another Southern California institution at risk of collapse would leave an even larger hole in the region.

That’s the local news media.

With the advertising model broken, the journalism practiced here by newspapers, radio and TV is getting weaker. And it was never that strong to begin with.

I was talking about this the other night with a local political figure who admitted that politicians he knows no longer fear the LA media.

You could add the lobbyists, power brokers and other shadowy players who quietly wield a lot of influence over what happens in Los Angeles.

They know that with some exceptions, the reporters who are left don’t have the time, the protection from their bosses or -- too often -- the skills to dig for hard stories.

I had this conversation at the Los Angeles Magazine holiday party, held on the terrace at the new Grammy Museum overlooking downtown.

Authors, editors and some of the powerful we’re supposed to be keeping honest were commiserating about layoffs at National Public Radio, Sam Zell and the waning condition of L.A. journalism.

This week’s bankruptcy filing by Tribune, owner of the L.A. Times and Channel 5, is a warning that we could be close to losing key pieces of local news coverage.

Tribune’s problems are not all due to Sam Zell’s ill-conceived ownership, but it doesn’t help that he’s over his head in the media business.

That, combined with his almost total unconcern for quality journalism or for Southern California, makes Zell the most undesirable kind of media mogul.

The Times, while still profitable, has been laying off journalists by the hundreds, killing sections and shifting to an online model that values quick hits and page views over depth.

The situation is worse in the smaller newsrooms that struggle to report on their communities, but are spread too thin and worry about their own extinction.

It’s enough to make a guy wonder what it will take for the most public spirited minds in Los Angeles to stop complaining and do something about it.

What if instead of bailing out MOCA -– or better yet, in addition to saving the museum – Eli Broad invested in creating the next generation of LA news media.

Not to single out Broad, though he did show a strong interest once in buying the Times.

It could be any philanthropist who sees the value of smart, independent reporting unhindered by ideology, corporate influence or the need to pander to Technorati with snarky attacks, celebrity gossip and cute pictures of puppies.

LA is starting to spawn an online reporting culture that could fill the depth gap, but has a long way to go.

The time is ripe for participation of the moneyed class, who are generous when it comes to public television and causes like after school programs, preserving neon signs or building art museums.

There’s a critical mass in LA of out-of-work journalists and others who yearn to create the next big thing.

We have models to improve on, like the community supported Voice of San Diego and ProPublica, the nonprofit investigative newsroom that has grabbed some of the LA Times’ best reporters.

It requires buy-in from those who complain Sam Zell is bad for Los Angeles. And acceptance that good journalism can afflict the comfortable.

The return would be worth it.

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