World Press Institute Reports Online

By Siobhan Heanue

The Los Angeles Times is one of the grand old publications that embodied the power and brilliance of the of the golden era of American newspaper journalism. So what a shock it was to visit the headquarters of the LA Times and see what felt more like a bank or a museum than a bustling engine of journalism.

The hiring and development department is deserted.

Pulitzer medals from past decades glimmered on the wall. Historic front pages were framed in the entrance. But the newsroom itself was deathly quiet, and the atmosphere was one of bygone glory.

I've never been in a newsroom that wasn't a chaotic, colorful hub of chatter. Desks are usually festooned with posters and photos, perhaps a photocopied newspaper cartoon. Hardly any of the desks in the LA Times newsroom had any personal touches. This suggests either a workplace policy that bans such self-expression, or that no journalist stays long enough to personalize their workspace. I guessed that only one in five desks in the newsroom were occupied.

Our guide told us the newspaper has had a huge loss of veteran staff in recent years. At the end of the 1980s, the newsroom had more than 1200 employees. Today, it has about 600. In the research and archives wing, two fellows observed that they felt like they were in a museum. I noticed something I haven't seen since the early 1990s - rows and rows of hardcover encyclopedias. Many journalists have an almost religious respect for books, but these musty tomes were taking up valuable space in a newsroom that could probably do with more reporters and fewer encyclopedias.

Empty desks and encyclopedias in the research and archives section.

The LA Times' parent company has filed for bankruptcy. The paper is crashing headfirst into the crisis facing many news publications; how to maintain business viability in the Internet age.

The editors we spoke with were incredibly passionate and intelligent newspeople, steeped in the traditions of their publication, proud of what they do. They are charged with maintaining high journalistic standards and relevance in the face of fractured, declining audiences and evaporating revenue.

It's no easy task, and newspapers around America are struggling to innovate and adapt. But what pervades the LA Times newsroom is an air of paralysis. And paralysis is one of journalism's greatest enemies. For many media observers, the day the LA Times' owner filed for bankruptcy marked a turning point. It provided confronting evidence of the decline of the newspaper. For me, that turning point was wandering through the hallways of a famous newspaper, and feeling like I was in a museum.