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Times Mirror's Tom Johnson Expected to Become CNN Chief

July 24, 1990|THOMAS B. ROSENSTIEL | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Tom Johnson, vice chairman of Times Mirror and former publisher of the Los Angeles Times, is expected to be named president and chief executive today of Cable News Network, according to sources at the Atlanta-based television news organization.

Johnson, who currently holds the title of chairman of Times Mirror's newspaper management committee, will replace Burt Reinhardt, who is retiring at age 70 from the 24-hour television news network. The announcement is expected to come today at a CNN board meeting in Seattle, where founder Ted Turner is attending the Goodwill Games.

Johnson was the first person outside the Chandler family to be publisher of The Times and remains one of the best-known figures in newspaper publishing. His outgoing style is a sharp contrast to that of Reinhardt, a veteran of the television syndication business who helped Turner found CNN and who shuns interviews.

Johnson and CNN executives would not comment. Times Mirror executives were unavailable for comment, as was Ted Turner.

Turner personally selected Johnson, 49, for the CNN post after a yearlong search, which included an evaluation of the future of the 10-year-old network by the consulting firm of Booz Allen & Hamilton and the work of the executive search firm Korn/Ferry International.

At a party Turner recently attended with Jane Fonda in Los Angeles, he asked Times Associate Editor Narda Zacchino and writer Robert Scheer about Johnson. Turner and Johnson then apparently talked three weeks ago, which was followed by a series of meetings between Johnson and CNN's executive group in Atlanta last week. Turner offered Johnson the job last Thursday, according to sources, and Johnson accepted this week.

Johnson was named to the CNN post ahead of at least four inside candidates at the network, according to sources. Among them were Paul Amos, CNN's executive vice president of news programming; Ed Turner, executive vice president of news gathering, and Lou Dobbs, vice president and managing editor for business news. The fourth may have been Jon Petrovich, executive vice president of Headline News.

Johnson leaves Times Mirror after 18 years, 13 of them at the Los Angeles Times. During his nine years as publisher of The Times and three as president before that, the newspaper's revenue tripled from $333 million to more than $1 billion. The paper earned eight Pulitzer Prizes. Circulation rose from 1 million to nearly 1.12 million daily and from 1.29 million to 1.43 million Sunday.

When he arrived, he would admit to associates later, he thought that journalists at The Times viewed him as a Harvard Business School graduate interested strictly in financial performance. He hoped, he has said, that he persuaded people he was a champion of editorial quality and someone who cared "about the human side of the place."

Johnson was a reporter in Macon, Ga., before becoming a White House fellow in 1965. He became an assistant press secretary and later executive assistant to President Lyndon B. Johnson. After that Tom Johnson served as executive vice president of the former president's television station in Austin, Tex.

Last September, Johnson was replaced as publisher of The Times by David Laventhol, who is also president of Times Mirror. Johnson became chairman of Times Mirror's newspaper management committee and was named chairman of The Times. Johnson also retained the title of vice chairman of Times Mirror.

"Serving as publisher of The Times is the highest honor of my life," Johnson said at the time of the change.

While profit rose, The Times' share of the Southern California market was chipped away by suburban competition, including challenges by the Register in Orange County.

The realignment of Times management last year played a role in Johnson's decision, sources said. Johnson also will be returning to his native Georgia, as will his wife Edwina.

Johnson's challenge at CNN is likely to be making the network grow internationally, since it seems to have little room to do so domestically. Abroad, its reach is still largely restricted to hotels frequented by Americans.

Johnson also must decide how CNN will align itself with potential partners, such as the cable network's ongoing discussions with CBS News about sharing bureaus and technicians abroad. The strategy would be for each to save money by sharing overhead costs and satellite time.

It is a time of change for CNN in other ways. The network traditionally has taken a perverse pride in paying among the lowest wages in television. Yet it recently paid talk show host Larry King $8 million over 5 years to keep him from leaving for another studio.

After losing $77 million their first five years, CNN and Headline News, over which Johnson also has responsibility, have started generating extra cash for their parent company, Turner Broadcasting System.

Johnson is an emblem of that change. The man he is replacing is barely known outside the close-knit circles of the television news business, and he is even a mystery to many who work at CNN. He was not even named president until January, 1983, because, as CNN executive Ed Turner once explained, Ted Turner "wanted to make sure he and Reinhardt were of the same mind."

Times staff writer John Lippman contributed to this story.

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