March 6, 2014; Zócalo Public Square

Former Los Angeles Times writer and editor Leo Wolinsky is not optimistic about the future of nonprofit journalism in Southern California, according to an opinion piece he wrote for Zócalo, a civic website (which is affiliated with a popular local lecture series) in Los Angeles.

“In 2011, news organizations throughout Southern California were shedding reporters and cutting coverage in the face of faltering finances. Sensing an opportunity to fill that vacuum, a well-known venture capitalist assembled a team to build a nonprofit web-based newsroom. The staff of the new entity would be schooled in the use of ‘data-mining’ and other new techniques, and would pursue in-depth investigations and focus on government accountability. The operation would avoid the pressures of Wall Street expectations by soliciting support from wealthy Los Angelenos and neighborhood groups alike.

“I joined, confident that finding good journalists would be easy with so many newsroom cutbacks. But just over a year after the effort was launched amid great expectations, it was quietly shelved. The idea was financially unsustainable. For me, a lifelong journalist, the experiment’s sudden end felt like the media’s version of a canary in the coalmine. If this idea couldn’t survive despite support from one of the city’s most financially connected entrepreneurs, what could?”

Wolinsky later signed on to a for-profit news site, focused on local news, analysis, and community interaction around favorite hobbies and passions. It has not yet launched, “plagued by delays and a lack of interest from venture capitalists.”

Wolinsky believes that financiers are more interested in start-ups that deliver a very large and young audience, or a “killer app” that has the potential to bring big returns on their investments quickly. He says that “delivering a mass audience in the Internet era often means playing to the lowest common denominator—outrageous and often vitriolic speech, wild and unsubstantiated gossip, amateur journalism and, more than anything else, a focus on celebrity in almost any form.”

He is concerned that this trend toward a focus on “capturing eyeballs” will crowd out reporting on more serious, meaningful subjects. He still believes it’s possible to create and sustain newsrooms that serve the public, but his experiences show how difficult that can be, especially in Los Angeles.

In Southern California, the delivery of local news has long been the purview of a bunch of community newspapers and to the LA Times, which has dominated through its large audience and wealth. It has been the region’s most influential media voice for a century, but that began to fall apart in 2000, when the Times was purchased by the Tribune Company of Chicago, which later declared bankruptcy. But Wolinsky believes that “what really brought the Times to its knees—as it did to practically every other serious newspaper—was the collapse of the financial model at the hands of the Internet.”

He points out that while the Internet has increased these papers’ readerships, they no longer held a monopoly in their communities, and with many alternative ways for advertisers to reach readers, profitability declined: “To survive, many newsrooms are focused on coverage that drives mass readership, leading them to trim the kind of reporting that the founding fathers sought to protect with the First Amendment.”

He cites one example: the Times’ decision to shift reporting and editing resources to entertainment, with more coverage of popular culture and subjects traditionally found in the trades, forgoing traditional beat reporting. Two years ago, the Ford Foundation gave the Times a $1 million grant to cover subjects that once were considered central—ethnically diverse neighborhoods, immigration, etc.

The importance of popularity contests was obvious to reporters and editors, who saw stories that dealt with serious, less sensational issues get less web traffic, and therefore generate less revenue. He points out that there are few news-oriented websites that make enough of a profit or are likely to do so, and that it’s a struggle for nonprofit newsrooms to raise sufficient charitable contributions for operating costs.

He mentions one publisher bucking the trend locally: Aaron Kushner, who bought the Orange County Register two years ago and has been expanding his reach across Southern California by focusing on print.

Although there has been a recent round of layoffs and reports of financial problems, Kushner has added more than 100 reporters to his newsrooms, created two dozen new print sections, launched a new daily paper in nearby Long Beach, and purchased the Riverside Press Enterprise. He also is planning a new publication in Palm Springs.

Recently, Kushner has announced an expansion into Los Angeles, and he has emerged as one of the most likely candidates to buy the Times, once the Tribune Company completes a plan to split its newspapers from its more profitable television stations. The company has stripped the Times of many of its most valuable business assets, but Wolinsky points out that Kushner’s Register already possesses the advertising, circulation, and other infrastructure that would have to be restored under a new owner, meaning he could acquire and run the Times more cheaply than some other buyers.

The local public radio station KPCC has also expanded to build a large web newsroom in an attempt to replace some of the Times coverage. However, Wolinsky thinks that the station “has soaked up so much of the charitable funds available in Southern California for news that other nonprofit publishers will find it more difficult to raise money.”

“But with these and other startups, their sights remain narrow and cannot make up for the loss of broad coverage of Southern California, its communities, and its government. My own sense is that the future of news in Los Angeles lies in a crazy quilt of much less powerful newspapers, some publishing exclusively on the web, along with a growing number of narrowly focused websites. Few readers will get their news in the way they have for many decades, in packages that cover subjects ranging from local schools to national politics, and from global movements to entertainment and lifestyle here at home. It will be up to the public to assemble their own worlds from these disparate sources and become as narrowly or as broadly educated as they choose.”—Larry Kaplan