introduces blogs, with more changes on the way

  • Postcards from Cannes by Los Angeles Times staff writer Mary McNamara
  • Snapshots from L.A.’s mayoral election day by Times staff writers and op-ed contributors
  • Video produced from a video-game convention:

Welcome to, relaunched.

In total, five new event-driven blogs have appeared on since it unveiled its new design two weeks ago. Yet what garnered the most attention is the much anticipated public reopening of, which, since August 2003, had been accessible only to seven-day print subscribers or online readers who paid an extra monthly fee. The decision caused a stir in the online journalistic community about the future of paid content and sparked debate about its ability to succeed. [See related OJR story.]

Rob Barrett, who assumed the position as general manager of in January, said the removal of’s paid-content wall is only the first step in a year-long process.

“This is more of a phase one, and I see phase two as a site with many more kinds of functionality,” said Barrett. “[] is not an ‘add on’ anymore. We are moving toward a highly cooperative operation in which we are using the talents of our print staff to produce web-only material every single day.”

Barrett began his career as a general assignment and beat reporter at the Raleigh News & Observer before enrolling in the Kennedy Business School at Harvard. Since then, he has worked for, Time Online and Primedia’s Channel One Network. Most recently, he served as Vice President of Interactive for Actual Reality Pictures, a position he said allowed him to make a formal move from the editorial side to the business side. He also worked on a political reality show called “American Candidate.”

“It was the biggest budget that any T.V. show had dedicated to the Internet, and we did things that anticipated what happened in Howard Dean campaign [in terms of] grassroots involvement,” he said. “The use of the Internet as way to involve grassroots participation was interesting to me.”

Working from a swank corner office in the Times’ landmark building in downtown Los Angeles, Barrett’s attention is torn between his computer screen and a continually pulsing BlackBerry-esque device.

“Since I’ve been here in January, we have spent a lot of time talking with the senior people in every department at the L.A. Times, and there is a very strong commitment from the publisher and from senior editors and from heads of every department to make a big push to be very competitive in online in every way.”

Going forward, Barrett said he envisions as a section that functions both as a showcase for editorial content and as a listings provider.

“I think there is still the opportunity for a very robust listings site that contains a lot of the rich content that comes out of the Los Angeles Times,” he said. “At the same time, if you take Calendarlive in a more database, listings type format, that doesn’t really sync up with the story-driven aspect of entertainment coverage. So what we’re looking at is whether there be a way to separate the storied content of [the print section] Calendar.”

While the Times’ entertainment coverage attracts national attention, listings offer a way to cater to an aggressively courted local audience.

“We’ve got the most extensive listings of anyone in print or online in Southern California,” he said.

Not surprisingly, traffic on the site has increased since the wall came down, although editor Richard Core said it’s too soon to announce specific numbers.

Changing Business Model’s Elaine Zinngrabe, Director of Interactive, points toward increased advertising online as one reason to steer the site’s business model in a different direction.

“In the past couple of years we’ve seen real growth in the online advertising market, particularly in the entertainment segment. With Calendarlive available to more consumers, this should be of strong economic benefit,” she wrote in an e-mail interview.

Barrett also expressed confidence in’s ability to successfully compete in the increasingly competitive classified ads market, where many newspapers are seeing the volume of their classified ads dwarfed by online competitors, notably Craigslist, which offers free ads in most markets.

“The Craigslist model is very interesting. What’s interesting also is that there are many people — many more than you might think — who use the [Times-owned] Recycler, and we have plans in this direction to be very, very competitive,” he said.

But paid content is not yet dead, at least not at the Times. Although has not specifically decided which content to charge for, Barrett said it will be along the lines of building database products with added value.

“We will consider a mixture of free and premium products going forward,” he said. “[It’s] that we should wall not pieces of what we’re already offering, but we should build new products that offer new value, and charge for them, and in some cases offer them free to Los Angeles Times print subscribers.”

Barrett added, “I want to be very clear that we have not decided on any particular parts of premium areas yet. We just believe philosophically that we ought to build the broadest possible audience with a free product in a very competitive market.”

Barrett also refused to speculate on The New York Times’ announcement, less than a week after the opening, that it will charge users $49.95 a year to access opinion and some other columnists.

“Both the L.A. Times and The New York Times and other newspapers have been thinking about the paid content issue for a long time,” he said. “So, I don’t think it’s meaningful to talk about whether there’s a connection between what we did and what they did.”

However, Barrett did discuss’s big plans for its own Sunday opinion section, at least in terms of packaging.

“To build a strong opinion magazine with [op-ed Editor] Michael Kinsley, part of what we have been doing is talking with the USC game lab about coming up with new story-telling formats, and hopefully we will be producing things that no one has ever seen before online,” he said.

New look, new content

Design changes to the site, which include new navigation bars and a restructured, cleaner look, are meant to maximize local coverage, said Core.

“We’re trying to emphasize the offerings of L.A. Times and its perspective as a West Coast/California newspaper,” he said. “The L.A. Times is in a unique position in that it’s the paper for a very large, local region as well as one of the recognized leading news organizations in covering the world and the nation, so we have to cover all those bases.”

For the last several years, the Times’ Extended News Desk has provided breaking news content for Now, with a total of seven dedicated staffers on the Extended News Desk, and increased cooperation from the print staff, the site can break and update stories more frequently.

“If the Extended News Desk Editor Mike Young spots something that we should get on the site right away, then as soon as it’s ready we’ll take that story, and we’ll get an early edit from the respective desks to get it on the site right away,” said Core.

Core said print staffers have become less resistant to continuous deadlines because the Web has proved beneficial.

“Members of our staff are using the Internet in their daily reporting, and they’re seeing for themselves how the pace of news and exchange of information happens,” he added.

In addition to staff-updated blogs, the Times has also hired journalist Richard Rushfield as a senior editor specifically focused on producing original content for the site. He said the recent blogs are the result of combined effort of various desks.

Both entertainment and business reporters updated the recent “upfronts” blog, in which networks announce their plans for the upcoming television season.

“They had four reporters BlackBerrying and calling in their reports to Shawn Hubler, a talented writer here who condensed their reports several times throughout the day,” said Rushfield.

Engaging users also has plans to join the user participation mix.

“We’re thinking very hard about a community infrastructure that involves members of the public and interesting figures from various walks of life in the larger conversation that we have with Los Angeles, with Southern California and with the rest of the country,” said Barrett.

Barrett is concerned with presenting thoughtful ways to engage users in dialogue, as well as the competition that already exists.

“We recognize that people go to many different kinds of websites, and we’re not just competing with newspaper websites,” he said. “So if we’re going to have user-generated content, we’re going to try to set a tone that what happens in our section adds areas of expertise.”

As continues to take inventory in the upcoming year, it will leave some well-established principles in place.

The recent blog entries demonstrate what’s possible on the Web with the resources of a big newspaper behind it, Rushfield said. But, he added, the editorial content at will also need to maintain the editorial standards of the rest of the paper.

“The worst thing that a newspaper could do with its site is to try to make itself the most edgy, with-it, down-in-the-dirt site,” he said. “What the L.A. Times has is not edge necessarily — it has resources, insight and history.”