Monday, January 21, 2008

Newsroom Courage in Los Angeles is Not Contagious

Word today that the editor of the Los Angeles Times, Jim O'Shea, was fired after refusing to go along with newsroom budget cuts. Here he explains his reasons for quitting in detail. This got me to thinking: why don't we ever hear about business magazine editors facing off against management quite so courageously?

I know, it's easy for me to suggest that other people, men with wives and families and negative-amortization mortgages, throw out their livelihoods as a matter of principle. But the biz magazines -- I spent 22 years of my life there so I feel strongly about them -- are suffering from a massive and sustained decline in advertising revenues.

The result has been layoffs, including a recent bloodletting at my alma mater, Business Week, that was shocking. I'm told by editors there that there have been layoffs just about each of every recent year. The number of line editors and writers has declined, with the bureaus being especially hard hit, even as the ranks of higher-level editors has swollen. The recent layoffs/buyouts resulted in the departure of major talent, including top writers like Tony Bianco and the two chief personal finance editors.

While it's not a strictly comparable situation, I think back to my experiences with a long-defunct news service that ran into hard times in the recession of the early eighties. After our joint venture partner UPI filed for bankruptcy, we were deprived of our No. 1 source of income.

We could have struggled along, and continued to stiff our freelancers as we had begun to do. But the head of our little operation, a distinguished former Harper's editor named Michael Macdonald Mooney, decided that the most honorable thing was to pull the plug.

In a way, Michael was resigning and taking us all with him. I didn't like it at the time, but in retrospect I think that his move was both gutsy and correct -- and, as he said, honorable.

Sure, it's not strictly comparable as I said. The biz magazines are still paying their bills, even if some are said to be losing money. But it would be nice to see some resignations, some gesture -- something -- in protest over the filleting of the staffs of these formerly proud and dominant magazines. But it ain't happening, and that's a shame.

© 2007 Gary Weiss. All rights reserved.

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