Widening rift faces Tribune's board

September 19, 2006|By James Rainey and Thomas Mulligan | James Rainey and Thomas Mulligan,Chicago Tribune

The fate of the Los Angeles Times and the 10 other newspapers and 26 television stations owned by the Tribune Co. remains in the balance as its board prepares to meet Thursday amid pressure from the company's largest and most disgruntled shareholder to break up the media conglomerate.

But the challenges confronting the 11 board members became even more intense last week when the publisher and editor of the Los Angeles Times, Tribune's biggest single holding, went public with their refusal to make additional staff cuts requested by their Chicago bosses.

"The board meeting is to talk about the strategic positioning of the company," with a particular focus on demands made by the Chandler family, which owned the Times before selling the paper and other assets to Tribune in 2000, said one person who works closely with Tribune directors. "But they will also certainly be asking management to explain what is happening at the Los Angeles Times."

FOR THE RECORD - The newspaper affiliation of the writers of an article in yesterday's business section about Tribune Co. was incorrect in the italic information at the end of the article. James Rainey and Thomas Mulligan work for the Los Angeles Times, a Tribune Publishing newspaper.
The Sun regrets the errors.

The defiant stand by Times Publisher Jeffrey M. Johnson and Editor Dean P. Baquet has become a watershed moment in Tribune's rocky six-year ownership of the Los Angeles newspaper - galvanizing reporters and editors, who see it as a stand for quality journalism, and raising the hackles of business managers inside and outside Tribune, who debated whether the pair could survive.

Backing the position of the Times publisher and editor were 20 prominent Los Angeles civic leaders, who said they feared that further staff cuts would diminish the quality of the paper.

Dennis J. FitzSimons, the Tribune Co.'s chief executive officer, responded to the community leaders - and, indirectly, to his wayward employees - with a four-page letter late yesterday that defended his company's stewardship of the Times. FitzSimons said the company is spending a larger share of its revenue on editorial operations today than Publisher Otis Chandler did during "what many refer to as the `golden age' of the newspaper."

FitzSimons said Tribune's commitment to Los Angeles also was demonstrated by $250 million in capital projects - including a production facility to insert pre-printed advertising and expanded presses to print more color pages.

FitzSimons also noted that the 13 Pulitzer Prizes won by the Times since the Tribune takeover is more than the company won in the previous 10 years under the Times Mirror Co., the parent company of the Times that was sold to Tribune by the Chandler family. Tribune also includes The Sun, Long Island's Newsday and the Chicago Tribune among its holdings.

"The Times is, and under Tribune ownership will continue to be, a truly great newspaper," he concluded.

It seemed unlikely that FitzSimons' letter to former Secretary of State Warren M. Christopher and other prominent residents of Los Angeles would end a fight that became public last week, when Baquet was quoted in the Times as saying that more staff reductions would do serious damage to the quality of the newspaper. He was backed by Johnson, who said "newspapers can't cut their way into the future."

The apparent impasse between Johnson, Baquet and Tribune Publishing President Scott C. Smith began in late August, when Smith flew to Los Angeles for a meeting to discuss proposed staff cuts. Both before and during the Aug. 25 meeting, the Times executives declined to present Smith with a list of reductions, sources familiar with the session said.

The two sides have not met since then. Proposed staff cuts have not been forthcoming from Los Angeles. But Smith last week downplayed the disagreement, which he called "part of a dynamic process."

Smith said there had been "excellent progress" in budgeting sessions with the Times but declined to say what he would do if his top managers dug in their heels. "I have great respect for Jeff and Dean," Smith said. "And I won't respond to a hypothetical at this time."

One top Tribune Co. manager said he sympathized with efforts to stave off more job cuts, which have beset an industry that is losing ad revenue to the Internet. Like many of those interviewed for this article, the manager requested anonymity so as not to upset Tribune managers.

"How long can you have your biggest subsidiary in a sort of open rebellion?" the Tribune manager asked. "And especially from Jeff, who was put out there because he is a company loyalist. You can't have this at a time when there is so much other instability."

The owner of a large newspaper chain predicted that Johnson and Baquet would be fired.

"I hope those guys have their career plans well made," the newspaper owner said, "because you do not tell Dennis FitzSimons and those guys at Tribune you are not going to do something. If you do, you are going to be on the beach, real soon."

Others within the Los Angeles Times said that the fight with the parent company shouldn't be viewed so simplistically. They noted that Baquet is a well-known and respected figure within the journalism community. He won a Pulitzer Prize as a young investigative reporter - ironically, at the Chicago Tribune - and went on to become national editor of The New York Times.

His protest follows those by another Times editor, John S. Carroll, who before that was editor of The Sun, and a publisher, John P. Puerner. They left the company in part because they believed the Tribune was cutting too many positions.

One Times executive repeated a complaint heard at several Tribune papers: "The only thing I hear about is cost-cutting and nothing about expanding the business. The business doesn't have a future if all we are going to do is keep cutting it."

James Rainey and Thomas Mulligan write for the Chicago Tribune.

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