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Times Publisher Puerner Steps Down

After a five-year tenure, he will be succeeded by Jeffrey M. Johnson, a longtime protege.

March 23, 2005|James Rainey | Times Staff Writer

John P. Puerner announced Tuesday he would step down as publisher of the Los Angeles Times to take what he called a "self-imposed career break," and Tribune Co. promptly named his longtime protege, Jeffrey M. Johnson, as publisher.

Johnson ascends to the top post at a newspaper that by many accounts thrived journalistically but stagnated financially during Puerner's five-year tenure, which began shortly after the Chicago-based media conglomerate bought out Times Mirror Co. in 2000.

In a note to employees Tuesday afternoon, Puerner, 53, described his decision to leave the company where he spent his entire professional career as strictly voluntary, although some of his top managers noted the increasing pressure he had been under to expand the paper's readership and to improve its bottom line.

In a meeting with the newspaper's editors Tuesday afternoon, the 45-year-old Johnson acknowledged that his long association with Puerner, dating back to their time as executives at the Orlando Sentinel in Florida, created "some emotional tugs going in different directions."

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Friday April 01, 2005 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 1 inches; 44 words Type of Material: Correction
New publisher -- An article in Section A on March 23 said the new publisher of the Los Angeles Times, Jeffrey M. Johnson, was born in the Chicago area. Johnson was born in Fargo, N.D., but lived for much of his youth around Chicago.

Johnson added that he nonetheless was thrilled to be taking over at The Times, where he becomes the 11th publisher in the paper's 123-year history.

"I'm extremely excited and honored to be named publisher," Johnson said in an interview. "There is a recognition of the tremendous history here. I wouldn't have taken the position if I wasn't a huge believer in the organization and in the business of newspapers."

Johnson said he planned no immediate changes but rather to "build on the foundation" that he had helped establish in his previous post as executive vice president and general manager -- which gave him broad responsibilities in areas including advertising, operations, circulation, consumer sales, marketing, planning and technology.

"We have identified our key strategies as growing readership, managing the business in a smart way and providing good solutions to our advertisers," Johnson said. "And those are the long-term, enduring strategies that we plan to ... move on."

Although Johnson officially starts his job June 1, Puerner told executives in a meeting Tuesday afternoon that the new publisher in effect would take charge immediately, and that he himself would stay on through May to help with the transition.

The management shift at The Times comes on the heels of a change at Tribune Co. late last year, when longtime newspaperman, novelist and journalism commentator Jack Fuller was replaced as head of the company's publishing group by Scott Smith, who has a background in strategic planning, acquisitions and investment.

Similarly, the shift from Puerner to Johnson in Los Angeles marks the ascension of a publisher whose primary training was in business, rather than one who began with an interest in journalism. Puerner had worked for his college paper at the University of Colorado, and enjoyed telling audiences that he had only pursued a business degree as a way of working in a business that he loved -- newspapers.

During Puerner's tenure, the newspaper won 11 Pulitzer prizes, its greatest sustained showing with America's top journalism prize. The company expanded its press facilities to print more advertising and editorial content in color. It opened a new daily newsroom in Riverside to cover the Inland Empire, while closing community news editions that failed to make money. California section columnist Steve Lopez and Editorial and Opinion Editor Michael Kinsley -- two provocative new voices -- arrived during Puerner's five years.

The daily circulation of The Times dropped from 1,018,000 in 2000 to 902,000 last year, as the newspaper gave up joint sales efforts with Spanish-language La Opinion and cut-rate promotions that had lured new, but not necessarily dedicated, readers.

The 2000 Tribune takeover and Puerner's leadership brought a period of relative calm to The Times, which in the previous six years had gone through three publishers. Before that, there had been six publishers in the previous 112 years, all members of the extended Chandler family, or named with the family's blessing to run a newspaper long associated with Southern California's boom times.

Puerner's predecessor, Kathryn M. Downing, left under a cloud that followed the revelation that the newspaper had shared revenues from a special edition of the Sunday magazine with the operators of Staples Center. Journalists considered that an ethical lapse that breached a sacrosanct line between a newspaper's business and editorial operations.

Several of the senior managers who met with Puerner in the publisher's conference room Tuesday said he became misty-eyed as he described his decision to leave the newspaper. The publisher spoke of his pride in The Times' record while he was at the helm, noting that prize-winning journalism had been accomplished while still managing to expand the profit margin -- by 3 percentage points, according to a company spokesman.

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