L.A. Times Uncertainty, Turmoil: When Will It Ever End?

Morale at the L.A. Times is at an all-time low following the latest round of cuts at the paper, mired in its fourth year of bankruptcy

Last Updated: March 20, 2012 @ 8:32 PM

The L.A. Times, mired in its fourth year of bankruptcy, went through yet another round of newsroom cuts on Tuesday, leaving its editorial staff unnerved by continuing cutbacks and an uncertain future.  

The elimination of 12 to 20 positions was announced to the newsroom in December, but Tuesday’s cuts hit more departments than originally expected. This is just the latest in a wave of departures that has plagued the Times over the past several years.

Numerous insiders have described morale at the Times as at an all-time low.

Also read: Los Angeles Times Cuts Staff Again

Some of that is due to layoffs, but some is also attributable to the lack of resolution in the Tribune Company’s bankruptcy case. A judge will hear the Tribune’s latest proposal for a reorganization plan in May.

On Tuesday, Craig Turner, the No. 2 editor in arts and entertainment and a Times veteran of more than 40 years, volunteered for a buyout.

Shari Roan, a health writer for more than 22 years at the Times, was let go.

Also read: Newspaper Paywalls: Too Little, Too Late for a Fallen Giant Industry?

These cuts arrive as newspapers continue to search for revenue, both through belt tightening and charging their online readers.

The Chicago Tribune let go 15 more employees last week and the owners of the Philadelphia Inquirer and Daily News hope to cut 45 positions this month.

”Publications eased off layoffs in 2011 because they hoped that advertising sales would pick up and they didn’t,” Alan Mutter, an adjunct professor at Berkeley’s Graduate School of Journalism and a former top editor at the San Francisco Chronicle, told TheWrap. Mutter has written a great deal about the massive decline in newspaper advertising revenue, which last year amounted to just 50 percent of what it was in 2005.

The result: cut, cut, cut.

The other option is to charge online. The Los Angeles Times instituted a paywall on March 5, and industry analyst Ken Doctor estimated that 20 percent of print newspapers will have a paywall by the end of 2012.

Also read: N.Y. Times Tightens Paywall to Cut Free Articles Access in Half

The New York Times, which sits at the front of this recent wave, announced on Tuesday that it was reducing the number of articles one could read before needing to pay.

Though the Times revealed it now has 454,000 paid digital subscribers – a robust figure — this announcement raised further questions about the viability of newspapers charging for online content.

The Los Angeles Times’ paywall was at one time linked with the launch of a proprietary tablet computer. Yet the future of the tablet remains unclear, as is the future of the company itself.

The Times staff has grown smaller year after year, now nearing 500 people when it once sat above 1,200 about a decade ago. The constant cuts and revolving door of top editors has hurt morale.

Tuesday’s departures come on the heels of exits of editor Russ Stanton, markets columnist Tom Petruno, New York bureau chief Geraldine Baum, sports writer Mark Heisler.

Davan Maharaj, managing editor under Stanton, took over as editor for him in December

Also read: L.A. Times Rocked by More Turmoil: Top Editor Quits With Cuts Looming

The physical paper has shrunk as well, as has its circulation.

Insiders also say the L.A. Times newsroom is currently struggling with what the Pew Research Center referred to as “culture wars.” In a recent study, it found newspapers are torn between an aggressive digital strategy and a more traditional print approach.

All the while, the bankruptcy has cast its shadow; a possible resolution is at least two months away.

Both the bankruptcy and the layoffs raise the same question: When will it end?