By further cutting back on its stock tables, the Los Angeles Times has joined newspapers all over the country as the combination of high newsprint prices and easy availability of market information on the Internet makes financial agate increasingly expendable.
The paper said it received more than 100 complaints from among its 1.3 million Sunday readers on the decision this month to shrink the Business section to five from seven pages. Gone are stock listings for small cap New York Stock Exchange and Nasdaq issues, mutual funds with the lowest asset values, preferred shares listings and weekly high and low stock prices.
It was the second cut to the Business section in as many years. In 2004, the Times condensed its daily stock listings to four pages from five, eliminating listings of price-earnings ratios and 52-week highs and lows.
"Every department has been asked to look hard at its budget to meet the overall news budget," said Rick Wartzman, the Times' business editor. An "even more drastic scenario" had been on the table, he said, although he declined to elaborate.
Wartzman said most of the complaints have come from readers who own shares in companies whose listings are no longer carried. The readership complaints were first reported on the Web site laobserved.com.
"This is not something we did lightly. We hate to see people complain," he said. "To make budget, we are trying to balance the interests and needs of our readers."
It is a balance other newspapers are trying to strike and cost savings are only a part of it. As Web usage has ballooned, readers have discovered that getting financial information from electronic sources has its advantages.
"In print, (a listing) is static. It is from the day before," said Kevin Sweeney, Web managing editor for the Donald W. Reynolds National Center for Business Journalism. "If you look at it online, you can see if news is affecting the stock price, if it is causing it to go up and down."
Incremental move to Web
Still, the transition away from print to the Web has been gradual. Brad Skillman, director of markets information for the Associated Press, said that 10 percent to 15 percent of readers identify themselves as using newspaper stock listings in the news cooperative's surveys.
"No one is really getting to the point where they are eliminating stock tables," he said. "You are seeing newspapers take a look at printing stock tables and trying to see what role they fit into their paper."
The trend has been toward repackaging business content, not gutting it. Customization is frequent, with some papers narrowing their focus to industry-specific or geographic-specific tables that are relevant to their readers.
If budgets stiffen and newsprint prices stay high, publishers might be compelled to make tough decisions about how they can "target" information in less space.
"Every page is a big expense to a newspaper," said Bryce Nelson, a journalism professor at the USC Annenberg School for Communication. "If they can cut one page that very few people are reading, then they save themselves a lot of money, and they can divert that to news coverage that can attract readers."
Chicago-based Tribune Co., the Times' parent company, spent $115 million for newsprint and ink in the third quarter ended Sept. 26, 2004, a 7 percent jump from the like period a year earlier.
But budgetary considerations are unlikely to mollify investors who rely on the listings.
Franklin Ulf, chief executive of Los Angeles-based Covington Capital Management, said that while he uses various sources to get stock information, some of his less technologically savvy clients could be hurt by the cuts.
"For people who are not in the business, who don't see the Wall Street Journal, I think (the listings) have a lot of value," he said. "I would assume that, for some individual investors, that is about their only source of information."
In 2001, the San Gabriel Valley Newspaper Group, which publishes the Pasadena Star-News and other suburban papers, dropped all stock market listings. The decision was quickly reversed because of fierce reader opposition.
The unit of MediaNews Group Inc. received 600 calls protesting the loss of the listings, which were reinstated the next day.
"A lot of people take only our newspaper, and they like to have those listings when they want them," said Tal Campbell, the group's executive editor. "Sometimes when you move comics around after a survey you will get some reaction, but nothing like what we had with the stock listings."
Times officials say that the reaction to the smaller Sunday business section isn't that strong. Compared with the entire readership of the Times, Wartzman emphasized that the number of complaints makes up a "tiny percentage."
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