Call it sour grapes. But a year after famous talking head Michael Kinsley was thrown out as the Los Angeles Times' editorial page editor, he finally lets loose on Tribune Co. and its problems "fixing" the Times.
In various comments, Kinsley said the Times is still one of the best newspapers out there. But he noted that it also has the worst Web site among major U.S. newspapers; that Tribune probably hadn’t had any vision for the Times (or for Times Mirror), although it paid $8 billion for the company in 2000; and that there has never been any serious attempt to develop the national presence that would ensure long-term survival, despite footprints in Los Angeles, Chicago, Washington (via Baltimore) and New York. Kinsley also guesses that the Times will be sold within six months, although the results won't be pleasing to a local owner.
Where did his comments appear? In the Times' Current section on Sunday.
Kinsley, now the American editor of the Guardian (London), doesn't provide inside dope on what really goes on behind the scenes. Truly, Kinsley's idea of a successful newspaper is pretty much limited to one that is read by influentials in politics, culture and business (in that order). He couldn’t care less about the success of the paper in selling full pages to car dealers in Orange County. For sure, it is a noneconomic view. For most newspapers, national is the gravy. Local is the bread and butter.
But his charge that Tribune lacked any vision at all for Times Mirror is one to seriously ponder. He scores some points. Aside from providing valuable scale for CareerBuilder, Cars.com and other verticals, anyone can observe that the Times' editorial and ad sales have been under-leveraged. The Times hasn't even dominated in entertainment coverage, despite being located in the company town of the entertainment industry (in fact, it looks like The New York Times' might steal a good portion of the market with its acquisition of Baseline, a leading entertainment database).
Perhaps the arrival as publisher of David Hiller, the very smart corporate lawyer who ran Tribune Interactive for a couple of years, might bring a new focus as Tribune tries to "right size" the Times' economics while increasing market share. But it is hard to say.
Ultimately, Kinsley concludes that Tribune might want to get back to its provincial roots and just get rid of the Times. He also predicts that it will do a deal with a local magnate like David Geffen or Eli Broad.
"If I were Dennis FitzSimmons, chief executive of Tribune Co., and someone said, 'Here is a large check. Take it and you will never have to think about the Los Angeles Times ever again,' I would pinch myself, then grab it and scurry back to the Midwest before the buyer changed his mind or I woke up," said Kinsley.
"But a sale to a local or locals is not likely to produce an equally happy ending for the buyer or for Los Angeles. Buying a newspaper is different from inheriting one," he notes, referring to the built-in sense of noblesse oblige of The New York Times' Sulzbergers or The Washington Post's Grahams. Me, I think that part of it is overrated.