And, as it turns out, a very congenial man as well. I had the surprising but good fortune of meeting Mr. Hiller yesterday at the well attended 12th Annual Los Angeles Times Festival of Books, “the country’s largest celebration of the written word”. Vaguely aware that he was scheduled to speak, I passed over sitting inside at the panels for walking around outside on the beautiful, rambling UCLA campus in the breezy, Sunday afternoon sunshine. So, I was taken aback when there he was, looking very casual chic in his off-white sports coat, standing in the middle of the main LA Times booth, greeting anyone who happened to stroll in. As Mr. Hiller isn’t exactly face recognizable to the average person, staff member Tracy Boucher was on hand, enthusiastically introducing him to anyone within range: “This is David Hiller, the publisher of the LA Times!” Well, it was remarkable when you think about it. I heart LA, where just about anyone in town you’d ever want to meet becomes, at any given moment, oddly accessible.
I was delighted to meet this man of the newspaper hour and feel him out. I introduced myself, told him I thought he was a brave man to stand there so openly, and mentioned that I write a blog on the media. His immediate reaction was, “Have you written about the LA Times?” to which I responded, “Not yet.” But since you asked, David, this one’s for you:
As the Festival is, after all, an LA Times sponsored event, the paper had a large presence with a number of booths. (FYI, this is a very fun event and well organized, so go next year if you missed this one).
The first LA Times booth I stopped at was selling subscriptions for the print edition of the paper. In particular, the Festival only “special offer” was for a weekend deal of Thursday through Sunday, for $39.00 a year delivered plastic wrapped to your door. Good deal, and perfect for me, as I work with designers, artists and entertainment projects in this city. So, I said sure, whipping out my debit card and making the salesman deliriously happy. But I wasn’t so sure about his sales pitch, which included his reminding me that the print version is sooo much better than the online version because one shouldn’t be looking at those computer screens for too long at a time, you know. At which point I mildly suggested that he might want to tone down his sales pitch a bit: didn’t he know that the LA Times is trying to build up its online presence and viewers?
A short while later, there was another booth, this one with two young women and a sign that said, “Work for the LA Times”. Huh? What sort of bad joke was this? I asked the two, “I thought the Times was downsizing and laying off people in the newsroom. What do you mean you’re hiring?” Yes, they said they’re laying off on the editorial side, but on the business side, they’re hiring, like in the accounting department, for example. Curiouser and curiouser.
Shortly thereafter I arrived at the main booth, where Mr. Hiller and Ms. Boucher were so affably greeting visitors. You have to give him a lot of credit. The publisher and CEO of the LA Times was listening to comments and whatnot from the general public, being as amiable to everyone as he could. As Deputy Innovation Editor, Ms. Boucher’s job is a new position created to coordinate innovations between the print and online departments. No small undertaking and so very needed and so commendable of the Times to create such a position. They both seemed open to suggestion and willing to make changes that will help this paper thrive and grow. I had a polite conversation with Mr. Hiller about the pain of editorial changes, having personally been on an editorial staff in the past where major shifts had happened. I got the distinct feeling from him that this is one head coach who is not about to let his team down anytime too soon.
But David Hiller is a publisher and his job is to sell papers. I felt for him this morning, as the Audit Bureau of Circulations revealed its most recent findings. Reported online by Jennifer Saba in Editor & Publisher the ABC’s calculations comparing the numbers for the “six-month period ending March 2007 and the six-month period ending March 2006” found newspaper circulations continuing to slide downwards. The LA Times was particularly hit: “The Lost Angeles Times lost 4.2% of its weekday circulation to 815, 723. Sunday was down 4.7%. to 1,173,096.” Ouch.
Even the numbers for The New York Times went down: “The New York Times, which usually experiences small gains, lost daily circulation, down 1.9% to 1,120, 420 while Sunday fell 3.3% to 1,627, 062”.
The LA Times has a long, tough season ahead of it, but as I said to Mr. Hiller on my way out of the booth, “I’m rooting for you”. Let’s hear one for the home team.