They Tried to Make the L.A. Times Go to Rehab (No, No, No!)

'Magazine People,' Those Champions of Journalism, Arrive to Teach Ink-Stained Wretches a Thing or Two

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I'm beginning to think the Los Angeles Times should just rechristen itself the Groundhog Day Times -- after the Bill Murray movie -- and be done with it. Of course, many daily newspapers are getting more than a little redundant right now in their eye-glazing desperation, but the Times has been extra special. (Let's cut the budget. Let's force out the editor who won't make further cuts. Repeat. Repeat again ...)
Amy Winehouse has a lot in common with the L.A. Times, actually.
Amy Winehouse has a lot in common with the L.A. Times, actually. Credit: UPPA

On the business side, it's become the Amy Winehouse of newspapers -- stumbling over and over and over, and so publicly, that screwed-up-ness has become the key narrative thread. As with Winehouse, the intrinsic screwed-up-ness now pretty much overshadows all other factors, such as talent (and the Times, which has won more than a dozen Pulitzer Prizes since 2000, still has a lot of it, downsizing notwithstanding).

So you might think that it's good news that, as my colleague Nat Ives has reported, the paper is doing something a little adventurous: On Sept. 7, it's rolling out a monthly magazine called LA, which replaces the discontinued Los Angeles Times Magazine. Structurally, it represents a radical departure: The magazine will report not to the newsroom but to the business side of the paper.

The message is none-too-subtle: If the L.A. Times is screwed-up, it's not because of management; it's because of Times journalists.

Last week, the new magazine's founding editor, Annie Gilbar, was crowing somewhat prematurely to Folio's Dylan Stableford: "For the first time in its history, they're going to have a magazine that is going to make money. When a newspaper is bleeding, and you have something that will lift the newspaper immediately, why not?"

Except that, whoops, that's not necessarily the case. As former Los Angeles Times Magazine Executive Editor Drex Heikes said in the feedback forum on Jim Romenesko's media blog, "Actually, the magazine turned profits in the early 1990s and in 2004. But the underlying problem was always the advertising department. In the early 1990s, ad-sales staff had financial incentives to sell the magazine. They worked. Then ad-department rivalries reasserted themselves, [and] the incentives were killed. ... Readership surveys consistently found the magazine was the third-best-read section on Sundays, behind A-section and Calendar. The problem wasn't readership. ... The L.A. Times Magazine failed for lack of a separate sales staff."

But never mind. Doing her best to alienate the unfashionably ink-stained wretches elsewhere at the Times, Gilbar further endorsed management's decision to take the magazine away from the newsroom and turn it over to "magazine people," as she put it, such as herself. "It takes a very different sensibility to be a magazine editor."

Yes. Yes, it does. Gilbar's biggest résumé credit is serving as an editor at InStyle -- a runaway success that a lot of magazine people resent because, well, it helped ruin magazines. It's succeeded because from the start it's had a certain unsettling monotheism: Shopping is the key to salvation. Actually, make that, Shopping like a celebrity is the key to salvation. Tellingly, another key Gilbar résumé credit is TV host -- at HSN, the Home Shopping Network. (And her new fashion director at LA -- not to be confused with Kit Rachlis' Los Angeles magazine! -- is celebrity stylist Lori Goldstein.)

Granted, L.A. Times management has been taking pains to note that its new monthly magazine will follow ASME (American Society of Magazine Editor) "guidelines" that are meant to insulate editorial decision-making from advertiser influence. But if you've ever read entirely advertiser-friendly InStyle, which also follows ASME guidelines, you immediately realize that guidelines -- and journalism in general -- are sort of beside the point if the very DNA of your magazine entwines celebrity hagiography with a sort of mindless, giddy consumerism.

InStyle (and HSN) might be a good model for making marketers -- and celebrity-shopping-obsessed readers -- happy, but it's not, duh, a model for journalism or how to make newspapers profitable and relevant again. I'm not suggesting that InStyle, a Time Inc. publication, prints blatant untruths, like certain other celebrity-obsessed magazines; I'm sure everything is fact-checked in an earnest, pro forma way. (When Selma Blair tells InStyle she uses Joe Blasco Ultrabase Foundation in Natural Tan "for contouring when I want to look like I have cheekbones" -- well, I don't doubt it, and I'm sure the spelling of the product is correct.) But as practiced by most glossies, celebrity journalism is one of those mind-warping non sequiturs along the lines of, as George Carlin was fond of pointing out, military intelligence: "The words don't go together, man!"

Quite simply, InStyle and its ilk exist to "report" about fantasy -- publicist-finessed, stylist-perfected fantasy -- which should make us all take pause. Except that we're all used to it or numb to it, to the point that somebody who made her name at InStyle and HSN can publicly condescend to actual journalists and nobody blinks an eye. (Heikes, whose legacy Gilbar implicitly dissed -- she gets it; he didn't! -- may never have had a show on HSN, but he did spend three decades doing stuff like directing coverage of presidential campaigns, the Supreme Court, foreign affairs, etc.)

Of course, the larger issue here is that in turning to demonstrably advertiser-friendly "magazine people" to set a new sort of standard of success at the Los Angeles Times, the Times is choosing to be willfully blind to what's happening to the larger glossy-magazine market.

Executive summary: It ain't pretty.
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