How badly does former Los Angeles Times editor Matt Welch think the paper is doing?
Its “attitude is killing the host,” he tweeted last weekend.
I called him on Tuesday to ask him what he meant.
Welch let it rip. The paper is “blaming customers, blaming competition, blaming technology, instead of more forthrightly recognizing that the economics (of newspapers) got a lot worse,” he said. “If we don’t confront our own organizational pathologies, we’re in trouble.”
There’s more, but some backstory may be helpful. It all started on Saturday with a strange curmudgeon-meets-Cartesian exchange over Twitter.
L.A. Times entertainment writer Joe Flint (above, right) defended the L.A. Times' new paywall policy in a way that got deeply under the skin of Welch, now the editor of Reason magazine and from 2006 to 2007 an assistant editorial page editor at the Times.
Flint tweeted: @mleewelch People pay for newspapers. Why can't they pay online? Ad revenue from web will not support a global news operation.
Welch responded: That's not a business model, either.
Flint: Sorry, I'm not in the information demands to be free camp.
Welch: And I'm not in the historical-anomalies-will-last camp.
The tweetfest got crankier from there, with Flint seeking reinforcements from fellow writer Ben Fritz (I'm fighting the fight for us Ben! Come on. People pay for water and TV. They can pay for us.), and comparing paying for news content to paying at a restaurant for food.
Which it isn’t, really. But the debate goes to the heart of a deeply divisive question that seems to plague the L.A. Times at this juncture: what is the right way to value news content in a world of free online news?
Welch believes the L.A. Times has taken a wrong turn into paid media. But he also feels the strategic direction and most of all the culture of the place is deeply misguided.
“Even though they’ve cut a ton, they cut stupidly,” he said from Washington, where he moved. “They cut the people making news and they keep every stupid blowhard columnist who nobody likes and gets paid a generous six figure salary."
He continued: “Having buyouts is the single most damaging policy they’ve had. Because if you can get a job elsewhere you leave. And who stays? The people tied to geography and people who can’t get hired elsewhere. So most entrepreneurial people run screaming, with a bonus. It’s incredible.”
He believes Flint, who writes about TV and media, is a symptom of what’s wrong with the paper, the attitude that the readers have it wrong. (Flint declined to comment for this piece.)
“Wearing my media criticism hat, there are attitudes that come down from this ahistorical moment that we all grow up in, 1960-1990, when newspapers could print money and act like monopolists,” Welch said. “Those are the conditions of newspapers we thought would last forever. But it turns out to be the only period of time where we can describe them like that.
“A lot of commentary by people within newspapers, and particularly media critics, emanates from the position of, ‘I can’t believe the party is over' and ‘shouldn’t people outside my building want the party to go on forever?’ They’re asking the question backward.
“They’re blaming customers, blaming competition, blaming technology instead of more forthrightly recognizing that the economics got a lot different, worst. If we don’t confront our own organizational pathologies, we’re in trouble.”
Well, the L.A. Times manifestly got itself in trouble, and we’ll have to see how the paywall works for it.
As for Flint, he may be hedging his own bets, since his final tweet to Welch, after a word about Reason running a tight budgetary ship, was: @mleewelch Well, then maybe I'll come work for you. What's stating salary for a curmudgeon media reporter?