Back in the day, the reality that Sam Zell now owned the Tribune was hard enough to swallow inside Tribune Tower. It was even more galling on the coast, where Sam Zell of Chicago now owned the Los Angeles Times. Zell is long gone, but the occupation rages on—a great city under an imperial thumb. The other day the lead headline of LA Observed, an online news sheet published by a former metro editor of the LA Times, announced: Chicago imposing deep new cuts on LA Times, report says.
The “report” of this headline was a story by Poynter.com’s James Warren (a former managing editor of the Tribune—and, very briefly, publisher of the Reader) that said the big bosses of Tribune Publishing, headquartered in Chicago, were telling the Times to slash about 80 editorial positions in order to save $10 million. “Readers should expect to see some familiar names leave before the end of the year,” wrote LA Observed’s Kevin Roderick, “and it’s hard to see how it won’t mean a further reduction in what gets covered by the Times.”
To a chauvinistic Angeleno, insult was being piled on insult. Austin Beutner, a former deputy mayor of Los Angeles, had just been fired by Tribune Publishing CEO Jack Griffin—in Chicago, of course—as publisher of the Times. He was replaced by Tim Ryan, who came up through the ranks in Chicago. One of the reasons Beutner was let go, Warren reported, is that he’d been looking into the possibility of buying the Times “with a group that included Los Angeles philanthropist Eli Broad.” It’s a possibility that excites LA and, according to Warren, horrifies Chicago:
“From the larger company’s perspective, that would mean sharply diminishing the size of Tribune Publishing. It would thus mean that a lot of current corporate executive positions—some quite cushy—would disappear as Griffin’s domain would shrink considerably.”
Beutner’s axing horrified Los Angeles. “A group of prominent local businessmen, including Broad and two former mayors,” wrote a letter of protest, Warren reported, and implicit in the letter, media analyst Ken Doctor told Warren, “is the question of their future support of the Times. Beutner had appealed to local leadership for advertising support; presumably, under Ryan, company leaders may be less inclined to give the Times the benefit of ad doubt, in spending marketing money.”
Imagine yourself an LA civic leader, or an LA advertiser, or simply an LA Times reader. A couple of strategies for publishing the Times are in the air. Which sounds better to you? This week the New York Times described them:
The Chicago strategy: “Tribune has long pushed to centralize virtually all operations and direct them from headquarters in Chicago, running its newspapers as a group.”
The LA strategy: “Mr. Beutner, 55, a prominent Angeleno who made a fortune in finance and who once served as deputy mayor, was outlining an independent path for The Times that was relentlessly local and focused on better technology, new sections and events.”
Without getting into the subject of keeping cushy jobs, Griffin told the New York Times the LA Times is vital to his corporate strategy. He wants to share content across all his titles, and the Times is where most of it comes from. It’s thanks to the Times’s staff of national and international reporters, disguised in the Chicago Tribune as “Tribune Newspapers” correspondents, that the Trib can present Chicago with a full-bodied report: what the Times does for the Tribune parallels what USA Today does more overtly for the Sun-Times. But is it irrational to pool expensive resources and share content? No, it’s not; it’s no more irrational than it is to want to run off the conquistadors and run your silver mines for yourself.
Jack Fuller had been the Tribune’s editor and in 1996 was now its publisher when he came out with a meditative book called News Values. Four years later, as president of the subsidiary Tribune Publishing Company, Fuller oversaw the merger of the Times Mirror Company into the Tribune Company. This was the transaction that brought the Times and Tribune into one big family, where they were expected to flourish from the benefits of synergy and scale. Seven years later, Zell took over a staggering company nobody else wanted, a company that the New York Times said was “characterized by a strong antipathy between the head office in Chicago and its biggest single asset, the Los Angeles Times.”
Look over today’s struggling Tribune Publishing with an eye to business values and centralization might seem as necessary as it is distasteful. Look it over with an eye to news values and the same behavior might strike you as counterproductive bullying. Fuller could look with both eyes, and I wondered what he saw. News Values has a lot to say about corporate ownership (the old-fashioned proprietors were just as bad, or worse, Fuller wrote), but very little about home rule. But he did write this: “The character of most metropolitan newspapers grows from local soil. In everything from sweeping elements of its editorial policy to the character of its arts coverage, a successful newspaper must reflect its time and place.” Is it fair to infer from this, I asked him, that a paper’s best off when the big decisions are made by execs who share that local soil?
Yes, he said, though they don’t need to grow up there. “What is necessary is to learn the community deeply and let the paper reflect it in every way possible.”
But he didn’t want to take sides. In News Values, he said in an e-mail, he was writing about a different time and a different world. “I won’t second-guess the people who have to manage a reality worse than I ever experienced,” he told me. “Though I always wanted very strong publishers and gave them a lot of leeway in how they managed their businesses, the world was different then.”
Then he reminisced. “When I was at Tribune, John Puerner at the LA Times was such a publisher (as was Scott Smith at the Chicago Tribune and others, not so well known to Chicagoans, who led the other Tribune papers). Together Puerner and I recruited John Carroll to be the editor, and Carroll recruited Dean Baquet to be the managing editor. Despite the troubled economy, that team led the LA Times into a journalistic renaissance that was remarkable. I was proud of it, and I wish it could have gone on forever.”
The Times won 13 Pulitzers during the five years of what the New York Times would call Carroll’s “constant battle” with Chicago, and he resigned in 2005. (By that time, Fuller was already gone.) Baquet took over, but a year later he and his publisher fought Chicago over staffing cuts and were fired. To replace Baquet, the Tower sent in Jim O’Shea, a former managing editor of the Tribune. And what did O’Shea do? He went native! Here’s what he told me four years ago when I wrote about his memoir, The Deal From Hell:
Griffith doesn’t help himself when he babbles that he wants his executives “all rowing in the same direction to create value,” and the LA Times reported Tuesday that shares of Tribune Publishing had fallen by 22 percent since Friday. He’s sending his man Ryan west to take over a newspaper in a town that seems less interested in making him feel welcome than in applying to the UN for captive nation status.