Friday, February 12, 2010

Maybe others should copy early LAT deadlines

Newspaper traditionalists recoiled when the Los Angeles Times announced a few weeks back that it would move its front-page deadline to the shockingly early hour of 5:25 p.m. from the prior 11:25 p.m.

Although I shuddered along with those who worried about the paper’s ability to cover late-breaking news, the initial results have persuaded me that most newspapers would benefit from the discipline of earlier deadlines.

Why? Because it would force them to put more thought and planning into their coverage.

As revolutionary as forethought might be in some newsrooms, the smart front pages produced at the LAT since the tighter deadlines were implemented suggest that early closes could lead to more of the deep, interpretive coverage that newspapers are uniquely equipped to deliver.

By playing to print’s singular capability to illuminate complex and subtle subjects, publishers can strengthen the competitive stance of the products that generate the vast majority of their revenues.

And that would be a good thing, too, because print cannot possibly match the speed, drama and timeliness that CNN or Twitter can bring to any breaking story.

Unfortunately for newspapers, too many editors and reporters feel their front pages have to match the evening news, instead of setting the agenda for the day on which they appear.

This anachronistic thinking leads to stale and unimaginative front pages that tend to reinforce the growing public perception that newspapers are stale and unimaginative products.

The early deadlines at the LAT, which took effect at the beginning of this month, are the not the result of a brave or noble experiment aimed at improving the quality of the product.

Rather, they result from harsh economic realities that caused management to decommission the Orange County production facility to save some $10 million a year.This forced the LAT to shave six hours off the deadlines for the A section, which is the fattest part of the paper and takes the longest time to print.

It still is possible to get late news into a separate section of the Times called LATExtra, which goes to bed at the same 11:25 p.m. as the front page used to close. Because press capacity is limited to 24 pages, it is not possible for the larger A section to printed at that late hour.

The new deadlines were put in place after the LAT in August began printing the Wall Street Journal at its main plant. Insiders say it was the shutdown of the satellite facility - not the WSJ job - that required the deadline shift.

So far, the LAT appears to be making lemonade out of this lemon. It rose to the unwelcome challenge by moving away from reactive and episodic coverage and replacing it with enterprise reports that tell readers things they couldn’t have learned by watching last night’s news. What a concept!

Page-one coverage since the commencement of the early deadlines has included cutting-edge coverage of the Toyota recall saga, a solid backgrounder on the political complexity of Yemen, a thoughtful analysis on the politics of the federal budget, an alarming piece on the plight of the endangered brown pelican and several human-interest pieces. The well-varied mix, however, was light on local enterprise stories.

As long as there is sufficient staffing to continue the production of quality articles, the LAT should be able to shine on most routine news days.

The test will come when the paper has to deal with a major, late-breaking news story like the assassination of Bobby Kennedy, who was gunned down after midnight in a hotel kitchen.

The LAT did a terrific job with the Kennedy story on that awful night in 1968. Could it do as well tomorrow?


Anonymous Case Ernsting said...

I've never been in a newsroom, so this question may smell of naivete:
I've heard numerous rumblings that earlier deadlines are creating an environment wherein articles are being rushed to the printer without proper editing and corrections, resulting in embarrassing misprints & typos.
Do you see this happening at the LATimes now that their deadlines have been moved up?

6:34 AM  
Blogger John Yenne said...

This was the Christian Science Monitor model for years, before they went weekly.

6:46 AM  
Blogger Mr. Neill's Cross Creek High School Blog said...

Very nice blog. I'm a former journalist, having worked for about 18 years at newspapers. I last worked at the Bradenton Herald in Florida, where Michele Leder used to work. I'm a stay-at-home dad now and don't miss neswpapering (even though I do write some freelance stuff for an alt-weekly here in Georgia). Anyway, nice blog.

7:44 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Great obervation, Alan..but has any one noticed that the new late section runs about 10-pages a day.....with barely enough advertising to fill 1 1/2 pages?
So, the 7 "open" pages look great....but when Sam Zell learns how to read...he will see the section isn't making any money. This section wasn't in the new Tribune 50/50 edit/ad mix philosophy.
It will likely become a 1/2 page spadea insert.

8:25 AM  
Anonymous Jim Donnelly said...

I worked at a suburban daily that was an afternoon paper for many years, and viewed municipal meeting coverage at its bread and butter on the news side. You'd return from the meeting and have a window to get the story written by 2 a.m., when the computer system was taken down for supposed "maintenance," which probably really meant that the owners shut it down to keep from paying overtime to the IS staff. The next morning, most of the editors rolled in about 5:30 a.m. and started editing the copy. It wasn't efficient, but it was better than what ensued when the paper went a.m. in the mid-1990s. Reporters would still go out to meetings, then return and say nothing newsworthy happened, and the story would fall through, get moved inside and replaced with wire copy. This went on all night on most nights. Little was done on the day side to decide whether meeting coverage made sense any more. It doesn't. So from that viewpoint, I think the LAT's move is a good one.

9:52 AM  
Blogger Unknown said...

If the LAT can still run a section of up to 24 pages with an 11:25pm copy deadline, it seems like a no-brainer to call that section the "A" section and wrap the whole rest of the paper inside it. Why in the world don't they do that? I'm still having trouble envisioning what their press problems are, but if I were editor there and the publisher told me I could have even a 10-page section with a late deadline, containing 7 open pages where we could run late city hall meetings, Lakers stories with art and box scores, any sort of spot news, provided only that this section must "float" unpredictably around the insides of the paper (as it has been described; I have yet to see a copy) I would say to that publisher, "What are you, nuts? That's our new front section you're talking about! That's where the news goes! We can lead the 'AA' section with the brown pelican stories." What am I overlooking? Is it not really a stand-alone section? Are they afraid the news desk would save the best of the daytime stuff for the "LATExtra"? Well, hell yes! It's a newspaper! That's what newspapers do!

10:41 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

After reading the "new" LA Times, with its LATEXTRA section, I find myself somewhat confused each day. The extra section on most days is very close to its former CALIFORNIA section. It's almost entirely local and regional news, with a patina of international and national late=breaking stories on some days, practically none on others. What I am waiting to see is how they handle a late development in a story that was thought wrapped up hours earlier and thereby placed in the early A section.
I'd be more impressed if the new section had been the result of careful consideration about the placement and timing of news, and not a solution for a financial production issue.
And the question asked in an earlier comment is indeed a good one: why not wrap the paper around the LATEXTRA? (I suspect it can't be done for production reasons so late at night.)

12:07 PM  
Blogger Ryan Tate said...

Alan this would be a much better posts if you actually linked to some examples of the superior front page stories under the tighter deadline. Just my .02. (I'd be more constructive, but I don't read LAT so I can't throw out any suggested links.)

4:49 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Funny, I tore into the LA Times today and then went back to piece it together. It was an education process for this old dog. Like you I think it's a change worth encouraging and the necessary adjustments will follow. Also I bet the LAT ad guys learn to monitize the new section in the near future.

It's refreshing to see this latest LA Times innovation. I receive four newspapers Thursday-Sunday. The LA Times, SD Union-Tribune, North County Times (San Diego) and Victoria Advocate (Tx). I'm not even from Texas but most days I find the VA community newspaper creative and interesting. Take a look at them Alan.

7:04 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I can't speak to how this will play out at a major daily like the LA Times, but in small suburban dailies, where these earlier deadlines have been vogue for a dozen years due to press capacity issues (too many papers in the chain on one press), the universal experience has been a) no late breaking local news; b) no late local sports news (including late games of major league ballclubs like the Sox and Cubs); c) complaints from and eventual departure of readers. And this is with quality enterprise news and features played prominently up front in place of "bread and butter daily news." I agree enterprise must be at the fore of what newspapers do in the future. Print for late breaking news is the past. But when you can't have feature and commentary on a ballgame that started at 7 pm in the next day's paper, you're going to lose readers. In fact, they're already gone.

8:33 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Alan - It's disappointing that you encourage such an egregious bit of avarice as innovation. The LAT is a daily mess. Please let us know what you think the first time the deadlines lead either to an inaccurate story on the front page or a truly major (but not big enough to stop-the-presses) gets buried in the new insert.

9:05 PM  
Blogger Elaine said...

Carefully made story assignments make for original stories.

9:48 PM  
Anonymous Dhyana Sansoucie said...

There is a perfectly good model to be made of this mess: Do a decent LATExtra section and be prepared to wrap the regular A1 with a breaking news four-page wrap when news warrants. This could be their plan.

I suspect the reason the A section is not now 10 pages with a 24-page section inside is at least in part advertising-driven. They have enough advertisers who want to be up front that they need a bigger section.

I do think the early deadline can help break the culture that wants to throw together easy-to-report stories on deadline.

6:29 AM  
Anonymous Noel Greenwood said...

Sorry, but the illustration that you use to assure us that early deadlines need not hamper the ability of the L.A. Times to place major breaking news on its front page undercuts your argument. The Kennedy assassination happened shortly after midnight June 1968. The illustration accompanying your commentary is a front page from the long-defunct Late Final edition, and has no relevance to today's situation. As a former Times reporter and editor who had experience with the Late Final, I can tell you that it was a limited-circulated edition for newsstands only (no home delivery) and went out of the newsroom around 1:30 a.m. It was a modest undertaking: an overnight news editor simply remade page 1 of the earlier, more sedate home edition and slapped a large-type headline on the lead story.

When Kennedy was shot, the staff had about an hour-and-a-half to make the Late Final page one deadline and provide the coverage you see in the illustration. Under the Times' new deadline schedule, it would be physically impossible for an event like the Kennedy assassination to make Page 1, since the printing of the main news section would have been completed hours before the event. Rather, the story in its entirety would have to be placed in the new, floating inside section for late breaking news. That strikes me as absurd by any journalistic standard. It is wishful thinking to imagine, as you seem to do, that the editors would magically devise an instant "work around" in a pressurized situation like the midnight assassination of a presidential candidate in a hotel a few miles from the Times building. The obvious but unappealing "fix" would be to trash the already printed main news section, and simultaneously halt the printing of the new late news section. Both sections would then have to be remade and reprinted and, finally, combined with whatever other sections were printed earlier in the day -- a huge undertaking. Home delivery to subscribers would probably not be accomplished until the following afternoon, or later.

It is additionally nonsensical to say that the paper has responded to the new page 1 deadline by "moving away from reactive and episodic coverage and replacing it with enterprise reports that tell readers things they couldn’t have learned by watching last night’s news." Reactive and episodic coverage has never been a page 1 mainstay. The paper for years has prided itself on developing enterprise stories worthy of page 1. But they do not suddenly flourish because somebody decided to jerk around the page 1 deadline to make some extra bucks printing the Wall St. Journal (I don't buy the contrary spin from your "insiders"). Such stories are the result of intelligent assignments being made, and talented and experienced reporters being given enough time and resources to execute them. Despite your sunny outlook, the continued existence of enterprise stories is imperiled by the Times' grim strategy of steadily decimating its editing and reporting staff. It is silly to suggest that deadline wizardry somehow will make things right when so many staffers able to do enterprise pieces of high quality continue to abandon the Times. In fact, the outcome can only be an increase in "reactive and episodic" coverage needed by editors increasingly desperate to fill the news hole, plus more instances of relatively ordinary stories inflated into over-sized and over-designed layouts to do perform the same space-eating duties but in a more subtle way. (To borrow your phrase, what a concept!).

Finally, the closing paragraph of your commentary is sleight-of-hand that ducks reality. You should have plainly acknowledged that a major late breaking story like the Kennedy killing would have to be shoved inside the Times today, no matter its import. To dance around that inconvenient truth is naive at best and dissembling at worst. Trying to bolster your case with the image of a 42-year-old page 1 from an edition that no longer exists just doesn't cut it.

9:14 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Yikes. This essay is atrocious. This paper has peeled away like an onion, and now the whoring out to the WSJ makes matters worse.
But this is the new reality, and at least the Sports section is relatively untouched.

12:17 AM  
Blogger frank h shepherd said...

Ya... the sport section is next... it will be outsourced to USA Today.... all's well that ends well.... the death of most metro's... nothing can save them except acceptance of 5% margins(at best) and no debt. Why do you think ALL debt ridden metro's and others are doing pre-packaged Chapter 11's fillings WITH BANKS APPROVALS? No debt, sinking revenues, small margins equal SURVIVAL...and when they wake up the banks will own majority of equity(from conversion of debt) and then the banks will be looking for the next buyer or should we say sucker... counting on PT Barnum's famous saying...."there's a sucker born every minute".....

12:04 PM  
Anonymous Bruce Wood said...

Great posts. If you want late breaking news in a newspaper, read the WSJ. (sorry LAT)

4:25 PM  
Blogger Unknown said...

I've dealt with earlier deadlines at smaller dailies with smaller staffs. For them, the same news gets printed a day later, but with a cooler head.
Not holding for evening meetings or events at LAT will likely mean more thoughtful coverage a day later. It did for us, giving us time to dig deeper.
But the LAT must make it sharp, and must show they understand the story so well that explaining it to the reader seems easy, almost obvious. Readers who feel smarter, and who feel they belong to a city that is interesting and important, will continue to subscribe.
The LAT has talented writers who can do that.
The definition of "breaking" news has changed with the Web. The print edition can be introspective, and the Web can be reactionary. Mistakes on the Web can be fixed; in print, you have to run a retraction or correction.

8:19 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Anon 8:33 p.m. hit the nail on the head. I worked for a large, Gannett-owned suburban daily for years. Over the years, the editors continuously rolled the nighttime filing deadline back until it stood at about 8 p.m. It's probably sooner now. The end result was rushed copy, rushed editing, and a whole lot of annoyed readers who stopped buying the paper because they would look for coverage of that murder that went down at 10 p.m. the previous day - and would find nothing.

If you can't cover news like daily newspapers did for years on end, then it's probably time to become a weekly.

1:35 PM  
Blogger Numfar said...

As a news vet and LA Times subscriber, I completely disagreed with your post, Alan. I was going to give a detailed response, but the Times made it easy today: the front page "story" on the Kardashians. What a total waste of space -- for far too many reasons to list. But wait, it gets better: the lede story on the cover of Calendar was a fawning piece of dreck on Bruce Jenner -- the Kardashians stepfather!

You can argue this was just a one-off, an aberration of judgment. I say it's symptomatic of what's happening at the Times and its race to the bottom. It was not "solid," "cutting-edge" or "thoughtful" in any way. It was just pandering to the lowest common denominator.

And your "insiders" are lying; the early deadlines are strictly to accommodate the WSJ, and the hastily cobbled-together redesign was necessitated by the Times' abrogation of its duty to deadline journalism.

You are right that many papers have become unimaginative, but pretending that printing late-breaking and important news is somehow passe is simply wrong.

10:41 AM  

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