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Troubled Times at the L.A. Times

I grew up reading the Los Angeles Times. Back when I was a teenager and a new immigrant to this country, I read the Times religiously - first just the numbers in the back of the sports pages, then gradually the contents in the voluminous sections. I literally learned and improved my English by reading the Times.

Spending the week in L.A., I discovered that the Times is but a shell of its former self. Check that - saying so would be giving "shell" a bad name.

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The near-death spiral for the Times appears to be continuing unabated. On Saturday, the paper announced that it's trimming another 300 jobs. And it's also eliminating the "California" section, the primary local news page of the paper. According to a well-placed source, the morale at the paper has reached an all-time low.

That's saying something. This will be the fourth massive layoff by the Times in the last 12 months. After this round of reductions, the newsroom staff will be down to about 600, roughly half of its size in 2001.

The mass and frequent layoffs, not coincidentally, mirrored the plummeting circulation numbers of the paper. While it's still the fourth-largest paper in the country, the Times has experienced a readership loss that's unrivaled by any metro daily in the U.S. In 1998, the LAT's circulation was well over 1 million. At the end of 2008, it's down to 773,000.

Many point to the Times' troubles to its acquisition by the Tribune Co. in 2000. And it's not difficult to see why. The constant downsizing of both staff and content drove many readers away. The Times used to publish separate sections in both San Fernando Valley and Orange County, but they were both shut down in 2006 as readers fled to the Daily News and Orange County Register, respectively.

Moreover, the Times was slow to react to the challenges of the Internet age. Until initiating "The Spring Street Project" in late 2006, the Times web site was known for its unreliability and difficulty to navigate, leading to a scathing internal memo to describe the publication as "not web-savvy but web-stupid." To this day, the Times is still playing catch-up, as the traffic at latimes.com is dwarfed by other media portals and many papers with much lower circulation numbers.

The memos from publisher Eddy Hartenstein and editor Russ Stanton spelled out the latest round of changes (the Times is so sick of its internal memos being leaked by the staff, now it puts them up on its own web site so it doesn't get scooped!). Stanton managed to spin out this gem:

We are all too familiar with this process, but over the past year in particular, we have come through each of these downsizings and continued to produce some of the highest-quality journalism in our industry. We simply don't know how to do otherwise.

And to reward their readers, the Times also just jacked up the newsstand price from 50 cents to 75 cents.