Tribune executive reassures Sun

Technological change foreseen by company buying newspaper

March 29, 2000|By Scott Shane | Scott Shane,SUN STAFF

The top publishing executive of the Tribune Co. of Chicago, which is purchasing the parent company of The Sun for about $8 billion, yesterday told employees that the newspaper's editorial independence would be preserved and its community involvement increased by the new owners.

But Jack Fuller, president of Tribune Publishing Co., said every major newspaper company must change to survive in the face of competition from the multimedia giants emerging from recent mergers. In most cases, that will mean linking up with television and the Internet, as the Chicago Tribune has done, he said.

"Ever since becoming editor of the Tribune 10 years ago, I've been fixated on the question of how you get these great news-gathering institutions through the information age," said Fuller, 53, who started as a copyboy at the Tribune as a teen-ager and went on to serve as reporter, editorial writer, editor and publisher before taking his current job in 1997. He is also a lawyer and author of six novels.

Fuller's half-day visit to The Sun is part of a tour of newspapers owned by Times Mirror Co., which Tribune Co. agreed March 13 to acquire for $6.4 billion in cash and stock, as well as assumption of $1.4 billion in debt. He visited the Los Angeles Times and Newsday last week and flew from Baltimore to Washington on a corporate jet yesterday afternoon to meet with the Los Angeles Times' Washington bureau.

The merged company will become the nation's third-largest newspaper chain and will have 11 daily newspapers, 22 television stations, four radio stations and a large online presence.

In Chicago, the Tribune's newsroom includes a television studio that serves both WGN Television -- the letters stand for "World's Greatest Newspaper," the paper's longtime slogan -- and CLTV, the company's 24-hour cable TV station. Editors speak of "synergy" between the print and broadcast outlets, and some newspaper reporters regularly appear on the air.

Tribune Co. is also seen as a pioneer in taking news to the Internet. It embraced online news before most major newspapers and has invested tens of millions of dollars in trying to find the best way to present news and other information on the World Wide Web.

Fuller said Tribune Co., which will own television stations in five U.S. cities when the merger is complete, would be interested in buying a station in Baltimore. Such a move would likely face resistance from the Federal Communications Commission, but Fuller said he expects rules prohibiting cross-ownership of newspaper and television stations to be dropped as news competition on the Internet proliferates.

"We like owning TV in major markets, and this is a major market," he said.

Fuller said he foresees no layoffs at The Sun, although Tribune Co. intends to cut costs by centralizing some financial and personnel functions. He also said there are no plans to make changes in The Sun's current management and praised Publisher Michael E. Waller and Editor John S. Carroll.

"I've been an admirer of The Sun for many years," he said. "It's a newspaper with a grand tradition."

Control of news and editorials at The Sun will remain in the hands of the local editors, said Fuller, who won a Pulitzer Prize in 1986 for editorial writing.

"A newspaper operates best when it's intimate with the market where it resides, when its whole identity and being springs from the native soil," he said. "We don't try to call the shots out of Chicago. We'd be foolish to try."

He declined, however, to commit to keeping The Sun's Washington bureau and five foreign bureaus open, although he said he believes "correspondents work best when they work for a newspaper and not for some abstract wire service." Some Sun reporters have expressed the fear that bureaus could be closed or combined with those of the Tribune, Los Angeles Times and other newspapers owned by the merged company.

The Sun, founded in 1837 by A. S. Abell, was owned by his descendants until 1986, when it was purchased by Times Mirror for $600 million, a price that included a television station and other holdings.

Fuller said the newspaper's contribution to the Baltimore community will not diminish under Tribune ownership. He said the McCormick Tribune Foundation, a philanthropic institution with $2 billion in assets, is likely to support Maryland charities.

Asked about the Tribune Co.'s reputation for being anti-union -- an image that dates to 1914, when the fiercely conservative Col. Robert R. McCormick took control -- Fuller acknowledged that unions have been voted out by employees at several companies it owns.

But he added: "We've also lived with unions and work with them well in various places. We're not hostile to unions."

M. William Salganik, chairman of the Newspaper Guild unit at The Sun, which represents news and commercial employees, said he welcomed those comments. "This is a good paper and a profitable paper, and there's no reason for either side to want a confrontation," Salganik said.

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