Letting go of the rope: Why I'm no longer a newspaper subscriber

As of this week, for the first time in my life, I am no longer a newspaper subscriber.

My wife and I let our Los Angeles Times subscription lapse this week, after years of watching that once-vital newspaper decline into, at worst, self-parody. We held on much longer than we should have. As a former Times employee and a life-long advocate for journalism, I didn’t want to be part of undercutting something I once considered a vital civic asset.

But I’ve also come to see that my subscription to the Times wasn’t an act of support for journalism, it was an act of co-dependence for sick and troubled organization. In its current form and under its current leadership, there’s simply no way that the Times will again become the force for community enlightenment it once was, and continues to pretend to be.

Incremental change will not save newspapers. The time is long past when that could have helped. Even at newspapers where management hasn’t engaged in conduct as outrageous and irresponsible as at the Tribune Company, continued newsrooms cuts and additional reorganizational task forces won’t restore mid-1990s profit margins as more independent online publishers begin to provide viable alternatives to the daily newspaper.

It’s past time for newspapers to blow it all up and start over. By dropping my subscription to the Times, I’m casting my vote as a consumer for Tribune and the Times to do just that. When I subscribed to the Times, I was effectively supporting its publication and corporate management and encouraging the decisions that they made for their company and this newspaper. I don’t wish to continue doing that any longer.

I don’t want to keep paying to encourage sexist and lewd behavior by people who, by their positions, ought to be community leaders. (I know that Lee Abrams and Randy Michaels are gone. But Sam Zell, their ringleader, remains.)

I don’t want to keep paying to encourage financial corruption by a corporation that ought to be devoted to exposing and building outrage against corruption by others.

I don’t want to keep paying to encourage cheesy and deceptive front-page ads.

I don’t want to keep paying to encourage the Times to move its front-page deadline before 6 pm.

I don’t want to keep paying to encourage the Times to close its neighborhood bureaus and cut its coverage of my community. (What AOL’s trying to do in Southern California with Patch now, the Times a decade ago already had, and better, in print and online.)

I don’t want to keep paying to encourage replacing experienced reporters with cheaper writers who have no training or work experience in the beats they cover.

I don’t want to keep paying to encourage managers who believe that I owe them something as a news consumer, instead of believing that they owe me something as a news publisher.

Spare me the argument that newspapers are the watchdogs of democracy. Look through most U.S. newspapers on a typical day, not just the Times, and you’ll find the majority of the paper filled with wire copy, syndicated columns and features, sports and business agate and lightly-reported local stories. Only rarely will you find the in-depth, provocative, original coverage that newspaper publishers cite to guilt us into paying for their content, in print or online.

Hey, it’s hard to produce much of that good work when you’ve been firing journalists for more than a decade. The Times, and the newspaper industry, began this reckless campaign of cuts long before the economy tanked, and long before advertisers turned from the newspaper industry. I remember sitting in a room with the “survivors” as Tribune Company executives axed nearly half the latimes.com staff – back in 2000.

I’m sick of this. The U.S. newspaper doesn’t need to die. But I should have learned a long time ago that the newspaper industry doesn’t care about my advice, or any other journalist’s. It’s only going to look at its bottom line, no matter the consequences for the industry’s long-term survival.

Last Sunday, the minister at my church told a parable that he attributed to Rabbi Edwin Friedman. I think that it applies well here. In the story, you’ve been given a life-changing opportunity, one that will clear your way to happiness and success, but you must make it to a specific place at a specific time to accept it. You leave yourself plenty of extra time, but as you are crossing a bridge on your way to the appointment, a stranger stops you. He hand you the end of a rope and insists that you take it. You do.

Then the stranger jumps from the bridge. You notice that the other end of the rope is tied around the stranger’s waist. You brace yourself as the rope pulls taut. Holding the stranger’s weight in your hands, you peer over the bridge. The stranger is dangling from the other end of the rope, one hundred feet above chasm and certain death.

“Please,” the stranger says to you. “My life is in your hands.”

“What are you doing?” you scream to the stranger. “Help me! Start climbing up.”

But the stranger does nothing. The stranger just hangs there.

“Please,” the stranger says to you. “Don’t let go. My life is in your hands.”

You look around, but the bridge is deserted. No one is coming. There’s nowhere to tie off the rope. The stranger is too heavy to pull up by yourself. Time is passing.

“Please,” the stranger says to you. “Don’t let go. My life is in your hands.”

An hour passes. Your appointment is imminent. You must leave, or lose the opportunity of a lifetime. You beg the stranger to do something to help you help him. But the stranger does nothing, except to reply:

“Please. Don’t let go. My life is in your hands.”

With no other option but to spend the rest of your life holding the stranger, dangling from a bridge, you say:

“I’m going to count to 10. If you don’t at least try to climb up the rope, I’m going to let go.”

“Please. Don’t let go. My life is in your hands.”

“10, nine, eight, seven…”

“Please. Don’t let go. My life is in your hands.”

“Six, five, four…”

“Please. Don’t let go. My life is in your hands.”

“Three, two, one.”

The stranger does nothing.

You let go of the rope.

Goodbye, Los Angeles Times. Goodbye, Tribune Company. Perhaps, someday, you’ll be reborn under management, with leadership that cares more for its community than for saving its old ways of doing business. Until then, though, I’ve got better things to do with my time and my money than my little part in helping hold a lifeline you no longer deserve.

About Robert Niles

Robert Niles is the former editor of OJR, and no longer associated with the site. You may find him now at http://www.sensibletalk.com.


  1. says:

    Good call. I canceled my subscription to a Tribune paper months ago for similar reasons. There are mornings when I miss it, but I refuse to encourage what they’re doing.

  2. says:

    What a sad, fatalisitic diatribe. Where are the solutions? Are we content to throw the baby out with the bath water?

  3. Anon #2: I’ll address that next week.

  4. says:

    I’m with drawing slowly by taking 3days of the Denver Post electronically. Oh and I publish papers myself and have one question. What would your father-in-law say. HHC

  5. says:

    And the result is, what? Nothing is better than having The Times? Let’s face it, even though the product has been diminished in many ways it is still one of the three or four best newspapers in the country — the same position it was in ten years ago or 20 years ago. Understand too, that the demise of The Times print edition — which you are encouraging– would also mean the end of latimes.com for millions of readers. The website revenue alone can’t support the organization. The same goes for most newspaper websites. So then we’re left with what? Random bloggers with eeven fewer resources to effectively cover a region of 12 million people? Come on, get real. By the way, I spent 20 years at The Times and I still take it at home.

  6. says:

    As a 35-year veteran of newspaper newsrooms, I get the problem we’ve created for ourselves with devastating cuts and misguided digital strategies. As a long-time fan of the Chicago Tribune, I get that Zell from Hell and his minions have done nothing but speed up the demise of a once-great group of newspapers. But I have also grown weary of so many self-absorbed reporters and editors, some of whom received quite healthy severance packages, trash a struggling industry on their way out the door to a better life. Resent being called self-absorbed? Really? When is the last time you read an essay by a laid-off ex-GM line worker, analyzing the state of the auto industry? When is the last time you read a thoughtful Q&A with a laid-off registered nurse, who could cite chapter and verse about the way insurance companies treat families in need of care yet reap huge profits? Why is a journalist’s career demise more important and more examined than so many others? Could it be that the careers of too many journalists has been about themselves and not the people they should be writing about?
    As for democracy, take an honest look at any number of newspapers and I think you’ll see far more important work than they are given credit for. Ask the Chinese immigrant in our city whose deportation was delayed last week because of our coverage of her plight if she values our journalism. Those who declare democracy will survive just fine without healthy newspapers have no clue what it would be like without newspaper journalism. Have you watched FOX News or CNN lately. Really?
    I tip my cap to my colleagues in our newsroom and around the country who have chosen to stay to fight the good fight. The ship is not going down, but it is in desperate need of course correction. I am not a Pollyanna. But I wish journalists on all platforms would spend less time examining their navels and more time doing the job they are supposed to be doing.

  7. says:

    When I was working as a reporter, I never subscribed to the papers I worked for because I could not AFFORD to subscribe. Aside from abysmally-low pay, there was no discount for employees. That was 20 years ago. I can’t imagine paying $400 to $500 per year for something with this much LESS news hole.

  8. says:

    Loved it. We shouldn’t reward shoot-yourself-in-the-foot business practices and pretentiousness.

  9. says:

    I’ve read the LAT every day since THIRD GRADE! I used to be so proud of my hometown paper.

    When Sam Zell took over and I heard about the way the reporters were being treated, and I saw a “dumbing down” of the paper – I cancelled my subscription. My family subscribes to the New York Times.

    The minute Zell is gone, I’ll start my LAT subscription up again.

  10. I canceled multiple newspapers last year since most of the news was online anyways. I’d open up the paper and read something I saw online 4 days ago..

  11. says:

    Steve Lopez, alone, is the worth the price of a subscription. I hope Southern California realizes they have the best columnist in the America. – Dave Lieber, National Society of Newspaper Columnists (columnists.com)

  12. I was in the newspaper business for 25 years — and I’ve been out of it for 14, freelancing for an array of clients that occasionally include newspapers. I live in the Detroit area, and I have friends in the news business who scold me when I say I don’t get the local paper anymore. But my interest in local news is very narrow and what’s going on in the city of Detroit and its other suburbs might as well be happening in a foreign country. I’m interested in what’s going on in my neighborhood, which nobody is covering, and we own a house on Lake Erie, which is also ignored. I think within an urban area there is a place for very small-focus news and very broad-focused coverage of regionally important issues and that much of the stuff in between is irrelevant to most people. The coverage by newspapers is too shallow if you’re interested in a topic and if you aren’t interested, what’s in a newspaper is totally beside the point. That’s not new, but I think the rise of online media and the availability of information from everywhere has exacerbated the issue. You can’t read everything, so you pick the things you’re interested in.

    Sam Zell did what he did because there weren’t any obvious good answers. All of the best ideas for making newspapers viable take money — more than any newspaper company can invest and still keep shareholders happy. Anybody that has involvement with specialty media knows that providing information and advertising that people want and need is profitable. Look at Google. But providing general information that most people don’t need and in increasing numbers don’t want — the business model on which daily newspapers currently rely — doesn’t work. And it’s not because Zell is a jerk. It’s because it’s a buggy-whip business.

  13. says:

    As a current newspaper employee, I find this kind of commentary reprehensible at best. The fact of the matter is that despite all the cutbacks and shenanigans in Chicago, the LA Times is doing some excellent journalism at the moment: the Bell Story, the Grading the Teachers series, the new scoop on Sheriff Baca — these are going to win prizes and deservedly so.

    Meanwhile, I think it’s worth considering the source here. Mr. Niles in his time at the Times registered a whopping 27 bylines, some as short as 89 words, and never had a single front page story. In his diatribe, he left out the fact that shortly after his departure, the paper netted five Pulitzer prizes in one year alone, has won several more since then and this year has grabbed several including the Selden Ring and the Loeb. The paper still is the second largest in the country in terms of Sunday circulation and number four on weekdays. It has foreign and national correspondents and breaks news every single day, as do the NYT, Washington Post, Wall Street Journal.

    There seems to be an endless supply of embittered former newspaper journalists who for one reason or another don’t work at papers anymore and react by suggesting that newspapers are dead and good riddance because, as this essay’s little rabbinical parable suggests, they just refuse to help themselves. That is, to put it gently, poppycock. Come into a newsroom and see people working extremely long hours and breaking stories every day, and making the real news that bloggers and online journalists “curate” and comment on, and then say that papers aren’t hurting themselves.

    A subscription to the LAT is shockingly cheap in comparison to its major competitors. And while it’s true that half of the paper’s journalists have disappeared in the past decade and it isn’t perhaps what it once was, it beggars the imagination to suggest that no newspaper at all is a better option.

    Here’s a parable: those who can, do. Those who don’t try to burn the whole place down. It’s disappointing, Mr. Niles, that you would rather than destroy than contribute.

  14. says:

    I manage the advertising department of a family owned, community alt-weekly. We are in the process of expanding our circulation and our revenues are way up over last year. Our paper is free and has been in publication for over 30 years. You’re right, the newspaper business doesn’t have to die, and there are things that print is better suited for than the internet. Smart publishers without shareholder pressure, are free to serve the community and run the business of the newspaper on small margins if they so choose. Readers know when their paper is working for them or not because readers are smart. There is a way to do this well and serve the readers first, and that is the way to profitability. The dailies are not going to do this.

  15. says:

    I can’t agree with this piece. Leaving it to bloggers to investigate government is a non-starter. For all its tsores, the Times remains a go-to place for tipsters, and its journalists, considering what they’ve been producing, are doing an excellent job following up. Show me something that you’ve done other than complain, dear writer, and I might change my mind.

  16. says:


  17. says:

    Good riddance to the newspapers in the major cities. We live in a small city in Oregon and the newspaper here is so biased as to appear totalitarian and a cheer leader for everything left It abandoned what shred of journalistic integrity it had years ago. It charges a dollar an issue from the vending machines and has begun charging for the online edition. When it did few signed up.

  18. says:

    Those supporting the content of the current L.A Times are either badly mistaken or perhaps shilling for the newspaper. It is awful and continues to slip. A terrible shame but an undeniable truth.

  19. says:

    Strange coincidence: we chose this week to finally cancel our subscription as well. It’s been something that we’ve debated for the last couple of years, and finally we had to take the sad remnant of the Times back behind the shed & put it out of its figurative misery. I see that your post here has brought out the usual poisonous bunch of Curmudgeons and Neo-Luddites, screaming their same tired old lines about the lack of alternatives, and p*ssing all over anything that isn’t exactly like their mythical glorious image of what newspapers were (and never, ever will be again).

    Sorry guys. The Times still does good work – the Bell story and Steve Lopez kept us going through the summer – but the paper edition is just too thin, too limited, to continue horking up nearly $50 for. As a last act of desperation, the Times is sneakily rolling back subscription prices. $1/week for Thurs-Sun. delivery. For all the Old Guard that screeches about “giving the content away for free over the internet” … well, what would this price point qualify as?

    The revelations of the obscene bonuses paid to drunken frat boys – uh, Tribune managers – while the news operations were being basically vandalized, were the last straw. At some point, you as a consumer have the right to determine where your money is spent. If a company indulges in revolting behavior (abusing its employees, cynically colluding with corrupt politicians like Blagojevich, etc.), you have the right to take your business elsewhere.

    Your post of a few years ago still hasn’t sunk in: We, the readers, owe newspapers nothing.

  20. I am still a newspaper subscriber

  21. says:

    Our subscription is up for renewal and you nailed it! My thoughts parallel yours, to wit: How irrelevant the paper has become and yes, I am also a former employee: 19 years!