In Midst of Editor’s Departure, LA Times Ramps Up Online

 The Los Angeles Times and the rest of the Tribune Co. have been going through a very public belt tightening. The most recent round of cutbacks apparently played a role in the departure of Editor James O’Shea.

But when it comes to online, the company is positioning itself for rapid growth, and is committing resources to do so. Already, online accounts for nine percent of the company’s revenues, which is slightly above the industry average. And this from a website that –editorially speaking — has been roundly criticized even 16 months ago as being the most undernourished online newspaper among the major U.S. titles.

We met with LATimes.com GM Robertson Barrett last week. Barrett was recruited to run the site after a long career in online and video, including stints at ABCNews.com, The Feedroom (a national site utilizing clips from TV stations), Time.com, Channel 1 (the controversial news show for schools) and way back, at The Raleigh News & Observer – which produced one of the first online newspapers.

Barrett says that the paper’s strategy is to realign resources to power both print and online more effectively (“we have more relationships with car dealers than anyone else”) focus more on the entertainment news franchise( which “eclipses The New York Times in usage, breadth and importance”) and take advantage of the Web to focus on hyperlocal opportunities via local bloggers. “There are 20,000 bloggers in LA,” notes Barrett.

The hyperlocal effort is likely to include some migration of online content to the print paper. It is also set to include unique branding by Chiat Day that includes local artwork in every neighborhood site (i.e. the lake in Echo Park?).

Barrett says that the best thing about the change in ownership is that The LA Times has been freed to go on its own and maximize its opportunities, without clearing everything with Tribune headquarters in Chicago. It will start selling advertising based on a sophisticated view of what users are doing online, on an individualized and macro basis. Advertisers won’t be asked to rely exclusively on print style CPMs anymore. It may also start to focus on some premium opportunities.

LATimes.com is also pushing hard on SEO/SEM; an effort that has helped contribute to a gain of 187 million page views since last year. The LA Times, in fact, is routinely criticized in press forums as being just a “local” paper, as compared to the national reach of The Washington Post and especially, The New York Times. But toughly 80 percent of its online usage is actually from outside the LA area, says Barrett.

Barrett is not the only one touting significant progress at LAtimes.com. Editor Jim O’Shea, in his departure speech, captured by LAObserved, also emphasized online as a major success area. “With a modest investment in new resources, we created a new fashion section that generates millions in new print and online ad revenues and a successful new Calendar weekend section. We also created a new multi-media Guide section and web site. The formula for success? A small investment in new resources more than pays for itself with added revenues.”