Los Angeles Becomes a Midwestern Colony Again

The acquisition of the Los Angeles Times by the Tribune Co. (price: $6.38 billion) may or may not damage the paper’s editorial quality. But it’s certainly a historic humiliation for Los Angeles. In the 1970s, when the L.A. Times–despite a certain stuffiness–came into its own, it became a significant point of civic pride for Angelenos to say that Los Angeles stood alongside New York City (home of the New York Times and the Wall Street Journal) and Washington, D.C. (home of the Washington Post) as one of the nation’s three pre-eminent newspaper cities. It was another way of saying that Los Angeles was one of the three most important cities, period. And since Washington, D.C., is a special case, this really made Los Angeles the nation’s “second city,” not merely in population but also in cultural influence. Take that, Chicago!

Chatterbox, a teen-ager in Beverly Hills during this period, recalls being bombarded at school almost daily with the message that Los Angeles, having eclipsed Philadelphia and Chicago, would soon overtake New York City as the Most Important City in America–this was, remember, the decade when New York City was broke, crime-ridden, and seemingly in irreversible decline. Los Angeles’ high-culture ambitions were bracketed by construction of the downtown Music Center (built largely by L.A. Times matriarch Dorothy Chandler) and Malibu’s J. Paul Getty Museum, a monstrosity built to resemble a Roman villa that later would be replaced by the handsome Getty Center. Los Angeles’ pop-culture ambitions had long since been realized by the movie, TV, and recording industries. Its aerospace industry, fueled by the ever-expanding Cold War Pentagon budget, kept the regional unemployment rate at negligible levels. Northern California, which everyone agreed was more charming than Southern California, had no non-agricultural economy (this was before the advent of Silicon Valley), lousy newspapers (the San Jose Mercury News hadn’t yet taken off), and surprisingly little cultural ferment going on behind those brightly colored Victorian facades. Los Angeles was the cradle of a new civilization! Hey, even Will and Ariel Durant lived there! The L.A. Times was an important tool in this manifest destiny. As Times-Mirror, its parent company, acquired Newsday, the Baltimore Sun (H.L. Mencken’s paper!), and the Hartford Courant, word began to spread that Los Angeles was taking over the East Coast.

Now, though, Los Angeles is being re-colonized by the same uncouth prairie-dwellers who populated it in the early part of the 20th century. The Rust Belt has purchased Times-Mirror! Even in an age when newspapers don’t have the clout they once did, that stings. As the L.A. Times account of the merger points out, it also means that Atlantic Richfield Co. remains the only Fortune 500 company headquartered in downtown Los Angeles–and Arco, if the feds allow it, will soon be acquired by BP Amoco. Who’s the second city now?