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Firing John Arthur Won’t Fix the L.A. Times. What Will?

L.A. Times executive editor John Arthur probably sealed his fate last Friday with a memo to his boss, editor Russ Stanton, in which he extolled the virtues of the newsroom.

The staff is doing great journalism, he observed, while questioning the rampant rumors of reductions to the masthead and impending changes to their jobs.

Thursday Arthur became the first casualty of those changes.  He was fired after 23 years at the paper. (It probably didn’t help that Arthur cc’ed Stanton’s boss, Kathy Thomson, on the memo.)

Arthur becomes the latest move in the game of musical chairs on at the Times. To many, the latest shift sounds like some kind of joke: The obits editor, Jon Thurber, takes over. And the sports editor, Randy Harvey, gets catapulted to the top of the pile.

Is this going to fix the Los Angeles Times? That’s what we all want to know.

With all the exhortations and grand pronouncements since the arrival of Eddy Hartenstein and company, a strategy is still missing to take this old-style, bricks-and-mortar operation and turn it into some nimble, digital-age wonder.

For the past two months, a “masthead committee” has been quietly meeting and taking stock of the editorial situation. Pointy-headed MBAs have been in and out of the newsroom, rewriting job descriptions for the consideration of online chief Meredith Artley, Tribune Interactive head Rob Barrett, Thurber himself and a couple of others.

Whatever findings were made led to one interesting result: Thurber managed to move himself into Arthur’s job. Best of luck.

The firing of Arthur raised the ire of some members of the masthead in a meeting on Thursday. Arthur, much like his former colleague Leo Wolinsky — who was canned last fall — was (is) an unabashed, old-fashioned newsroom guy, the kind who stayed till 10 at night, who checked in on weekends and who guarded the sanctity of the front page with the loyalty of a Saint Bernard. But he was a leftover from the era of Jim O’Shea, an editor ago.

He’s gone now, replaced by people who are presumably more loyal to Stanton.

So what possible future looms ahead?

The hardcore problems remain. The company is still in bankruptcy. The newsroom has been shaved to something like 700 people; entire floors on Spring Street sit empty, abandoned, with darkened desks.

Journalism goes on. The paper has been aggressively — and quite capably — covering the latest editorial juggernaut, the sudden death of Michael Jackson. (Nobody’s beating TMZ these days, but the L.A. Times is definitely in the game.)

The word from inside is that the financial hemmoraghing has stopped. Bankruptcy has staved off the Tribune’s creditors, so for the moment the paper is managing to stay afloat.

But for how long? Sam Zell, the scrappy scrap entrepreneur who was meant to knock the stuffing out of this stuffy industry, has more or less disappeared. He will take the loss of his $315 million investment, having wagered the pension fund of the Tribune’s employees to buy the place.

A bankruptcy judge will decide in August how to deal with the $8.5 billion in outstanding debt owed to 30 or so creditors, led by JP Morgan Chase Bank.

At that time, there may be an opportunity for local buyers to step in and buy the Times as an entity separate from Tribune. (I’m still hearing that Eli Broad, Ron Burkle and Rupert Murdoch are all interested. A spokesman for News Corp denies any interest.)

Or the creditors may form a consortium and take over management of the company, which would likely lead to a piecemeal break-up and a fire sale.

None of this will help those of us who care about decent journalism. Someone, somewhere still needs to come up with a plan for major newspapers like the Los Angeles Times to remain economically viable.

(Hey Esther, can you get Eddy Hartenstein on the line?)