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CALIFORNIA AND THE WEST | MIKE DOWNEY

Relax, L.A.! The Times Will Still Be The Times

March 15, 2000|MIKE DOWNEY

Today is the second anniversary of the column I've been doing for this corner of the newspaper, a position I was offered to keep me from working for the Chicago Tribune.

The hardest part of staying was not going. A guy like me doesn't often get a chance to work for an outfit like that twice in a lifetime.

So, now that The Times is in the process of being purchased by Da Trib, excuse me if I don't wail that there are barbarians at our gate.

It may be a $6.1-billion deal, but to me it's a bigger deal. I didn't grow up with this paper . . . I grew up with that paper.

In our neck of the woods, Da Trib was a class act. It was handsome, it was haughty, it was filthy rich, it was deadly dull, it was pedigreed, it was powerful and it was everywhere. You couldn't kick a tin can from Wisconsin to Kentucky without accidentally hitting a Tribune coin box.

In short, it was not unlike a certain California paper that we all know.

But some of our natives are restless. It feels as if they're running around yelling: "The Tribune is coming, the Tribune is coming!" There is talk as if Chicago's butchers are coming here straight from the stockyards, with blood on their aprons.

*

I can appreciate that it came as a jolt to loyal readers and civic leaders, this news that Los Angeles' 119-year-old, great-grandpappy of a newspaper won't be owned and operated out of Los Angeles anymore. (Operated, yes. Owned, no.)

What do they fear is going to happen, though? A Chicagoization of L.A.?

Maybe they think editors from Da Trib are going to fax hourly messages from the heartland to The Times' newsroom: "SHORTER SENTENCES!" "PLAY UP WEATHER REPORTS MORE!" "WHO CARES ABOUT DODGERS, ANYWAY?" "MORE ABOUT FARMING, LESS ABOUT SURFING!"

I would worry more myself if this takeover bid were being made by, say, the ownership of the New York Post. Then, instead of award-winning foreign coverage from Sri Lanka, we would probably provide you with more comprehensive Page 1 coverage of Ivana Trump.

On the other hand, the Tribune's management back in 1919 did launch the Post's big rival, the New York Daily News, which in the years to come proved to be equally goofy in its news judgment.

But that was there and this is here. Nobody needs to be disturbed about our Windy City friends blowing into town. Or about this fine daily paper of ours being run out of a mighty (well, mighty old) tower on Michigan Avenue, right across the street from two of Chicago's greatest monuments, the Wrigley Building and the Billy Goat Tavern.

Once the sale is approved and Da Trib's people begin telling us what's what, everything should be hunky-dory here. (The Los Angeles Tribune? Wasn't that Lou Grant's paper?) The news is the news is the news.

Don't forget, Channel 5 here is also owned by Da Trib, and nothing too terrible has happened there. Unless you count "Buffy, the Vampire Slayer."

Tribune Co. is a ready-for-the-21st-century company, one with a TV superstation, an acclaimed Web site and a baseball team that will win the World Series no less than once in the next 100 years. Take it from me, The Times is falling into good hands. The quality of this newspaper won't suffer a bit, and might even improve if they jerk me off this page and replace me with Bob Greene.

How could I deplore out-of-town ownership here, when my own paper owns papers out of town? How could I rue new management here, when I have heard so much grouching about old management? Colleagues rhapsodize about the way Otis Chandler ran this paper, but he's yesterday's good news. You can't unwind the clock.

*

For those of us reared in its circulation area, the Chicago Tribune was a model of refinement, a thinking person's paper. Some of us didn't want to think. Some of us rode a train and preferred to read a paper we could easily fold. Da Trib wasn't for everybody.

Later I worked for the enemy. Day in, night out, we fought the Tribune, admired it, mocked it. We eagerly watched Mike Royko beat it, then sadly watched him join it. We saw Ann Landers come down the hall, then saw her go across the street. Da Trib gets everybody in the end.

Two years ago, it almost got me too.

I agonized about returning to Chicago, because I already worked for a world-class newspaper. What could I do? I couldn't work for both at the same time.

Turns out, maybe I can.

Mike Downey's column appears Sundays, Wednesdays and Fridays. Write to him at Times Mirror Square, Los Angeles 90053. E-mail: mike.downey@latimes.com

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