The L.A. Times buries the lead, and its profits

A bicyclist passes photos displayed on the Los Angeles Times building in Los Angeles.
Getty Images
A bicyclist passes photos displayed on the Los Angeles Times building in Los Angeles.

Sometimes in business, you fail through no fault of your own. Market forces and consumer trends can often blow against even the best ideas, the hardest workers, and the best of intentions.

And sometimes you fail because it's your own damn fault.

I know this is a troubled time for Tribune Publishing. The shareholders are locked in a battle over a takeover offer from Gannett. Old media is facing some uphill battles not all of its own making, and I'd hate to see Tribune's price properties like the Los Angeles Times and the Chicago Tribune crash and burn. But even as Tribune was conducting its somewhat contentious shareholder meeting, (which produced no big news other than changing the company name to Tronc Inc.), the company made the kind of crucial and inexcusable error that explains some of the its self-inflicted woes.

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The mistake was political in nature, as many of mainstream media's biggest critics would not be surprised to learn. It turns out that the L.A. Times published the results of its joint statewide California poll with USC late yesterday. That poll showed Bernie Sanders with a one percentage point lead overall versus Hillary Clinton. Mrs. Clinton, on the other hand, had the lead among registered and more likely voters. But here's the thing: the headline of the L.A. Times story about its own poll with a very newsworthy and grabby story did not mention that Sanders was ahead. Here's that headline: "Analysis: Bernie Sanders and Hillary Clinton in a tight race in California as the campaign batters her popularity"

Huh? That's an awfully wordy and clunky headline, (with the boring "analysis" word right there at the top to make sure no one looking for excitement need apply), and it leaves out the exciting lead that Sanders has taken a lead in the overall poll. Okay, okay I can already hear some of the purists out there screaming that it would be somehow misleading to say Sanders was ahead in the headline because of Clinton's lead among registered and likely voters. Fair enough, but that information could be put in a sub-headline. There would be nothing unethical or even inaccurate about saying that Sanders leads Clinton in the beginning of a better headline. But the L.A. Times didn't do that, and that's not the half of it.

It turns out the poll results and the accompanying story disappeared from the homepage relatively quickly. It's still on the site, but as of 8am Eastern Friday, it wasn't front and center at all. Considering the hard work and money that goes into statewide California polls, that seems like a major waste of resources. Meanwhile, the aggregating sites like Drudge have flashy headlines about Sanders leading on their homepages. They are stealing the L.A. Times' and Tribune's thunder.

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What could be the reason for this shyness on the part of the headline and homepage editors at the L.A. Times? Could it be partisanship in favor of the Clinton campaign and a reluctance to trumpet a headline that would displease her? Could it be there's no collusion, but the paper's editors are very strong Clinton supporters and they simply don't want to seemingly hurt her campaign? Either way, it sure looks like it's very possible that some other set of political considerations are trumping financial responsibility and aggressiveness at the L.A. Times. That's bad business, and it's also bad politics.

We hear a lot of old media types these days insisting their models are failing financially because new media is less ethical and too aggressive. But the fact is that most of the American traditional media has been too liberal and partisan to grab an audience big enough to survive in its historical form. The fact that this partisanship is being sold as some kind ethical superiority that wasn't commercial enough for the great unwashed masses is more than just an insult, it's corporate malpractice. Don't be surprised if large numbers of Sanders supporters air their anger at the L.A. Times and Tribune today on social media. I'd say they'd cancel their newspaper subscriptions, but we all know they don't have them. And writing an old fashioned letter to the editor won't cut it; we all know why.

No one should demand the L.A. Times or any other news media outlet support a particular candidate or get behind an effort to bash another. This is not about making the newspapers more friendly to Sanders or even Donald Trump. The point is, the old media really looks like it's taking sides once again and the Sanders and Trump supporters can make a good case that it's taking sides against them. And that's going to cost old media once again. Financial concerns should never erase legitimate ethical concerns, but in this case being more financially tuned in would actually improve at the least the appearance of ethical behavior at one of the biggest still living newspapers in America. Why not give it a try?

Commentary by Jake Novak, supervising producer of "Power Lunch." Follow him on Twitter @jakejakeny.