Bad recession reporting redux

I recently began taking the New York Times. I haven’t dropped my hometowner yet, but it’s getting easier and easier to make the inevitable decision to embrace the Gray Lady and dump the spayed one.

It’s a sad departure from a decade ago, when I’d parse the cadences and rhythms of L.A. Times’ stories, trying to pick up something I could use to tighten a lede, or crack the nut graf – much like a bush leaguer studying Ted Williams’ swing.

Now, when I engage in the same practice, I’m more likely to be nauseated than invigorated. The great journalism once published on the Times’ front page has been all but buried in a shallow grave – or more concisely, a grave of shallowness.

What truer instance of that was today’s front-pager: ‘Down and out,’ but not enough to get aid,” Molly Hennessy-Fiske’s study of Caroline Sabey, a 42-year-old single mother who failed to qualify for public assistance.

The headline and premise sound gut-wrenching, but are entirely misleading. The article glosses over a salient fact: Sabey receives nearly $2,000 a month in unemployment benefits. That’s the take-home equivalent of about $34,000 a year. Sabey grumbles that her unemployment benefits “barely covers her basic rent and bills.” Isn’t that exactly what it’s supposed to do?

Fiske’s article does not contain any quotes from someone making that obvious point. Nor does it contain interviews with anyone else in a similar predicament, or discuss the fact that recently enacted federal aid extended the benefits Sabey receives. The online version of the Times story also contained that ridiculous illustration of a middle-class family on a breadline the paper had published a while back. I had criticized its use both in this blog and in the L.A. Business Journal back in December as overkill.

Recycled trash -- the illustration the L.A. Times used back in December to suggest a return to the Great Depression.

Recycling bin -- the illustration the L.A. Times used back in December to suggest a return to the Great Depression.

While it was recycling this artwork, the Times got badly scooped on the same issue on the same day by its New York counterpart, which ran a front-page story about homeless encampments sprouting up in and around Fresno. The last time I checked, that was, er…not too far away. Given the Spayed Lady had claimed a refocus on California news, it should have had it first – a long time ago.

Along with an in-depth story about people who wish they were netting half of what Sabey does, it included a great photo essay, an observation that the encampments were fall smaller than their equivalents during the Great Depression and a nut quote that put the story in its proper perspective: “These are able-bodied folks that did day labor, at minimum wage or better, who were previously able to house themselves based on their income,” said Michael Stoops, the executive director of the National Coalition for the Homeless, an advocacy group based in Washington.

While the economy may recover, the L.A Times simply will not. Its editorial staff is half of what it was a decade ago, and positions are being cut virtually very week. In the most recent round just a couple of days ago, casualties included Tim Lynch, Jennifer Oldham and Aaron Curtiss, people with great knowledge of Los Angeles and a valuable institutional memory. Aside from writing some great pieces about San Fernando Valley culture back in the early 1990s, Curtiss should have been retained simply for having the courage to wear Mr. Peanut apparel in public.

By contrast, the Gray Lady is facing its crisis by temporarily cutting the salaries of its news staff rather than permanently elminating their jobs, gambling that preserving a strong editorial presence will guarantee not only future prosperity, but the perpetuation of a quality product.

In other words, the NYT’s management knows a little something about spaying Sam Zell does not: once you put particular components under the knife, they’re gone. Forever.

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