The occasion was the annual advertising department awards ceremony at the Chicago Tribune, and the star performer was the publisher, David Hiller -- decked out in a black wig and matching garb, belting out a parody entitled "I Walk the (Top) Line" in a hilariously dead-on imitation of Johnny Cash.
Hiller, 53, is described by friends and former colleagues as a personable, funny and intellectually engaged executive who understands journalistic traditions. But he is not shy about stating that the challenge for newspapers is to do "the absolute best job you can for readers and online customers and still be a strong business."
In the industry's quest to balance economic concerns, investor demands and journalistic mandates, Hiller now occupies one of the hot seats. The Chicago native and Harvard-trained attorney took over Thursday as publisher of the Los Angeles Times, following the resignation of Jeffrey M. Johnson, who had publicly questioned the strategy of parent Tribune Co.
Hiller steps into a situation fraught with local and corporate tensions. Under pressure from Southern California's Chandler family, Tribune's largest shareholder, company executives are exploring a wide range of restructuring options over the next few months. They include spinning off the television broadcasting group, selling several newspapers and taking parts of the remaining company private.
Meanwhile, Tribune has been approached by local investors in Los Angeles and Baltimore interested in acquiring The Times or the Baltimore Sun, underscoring the debate in the industry over whether newspapers operate best under local rather than remote ownership or in private rather than public hands. After Johnson and Times Editor Dean Baquet publicly opposed a corporate demand for a stringent cost-cutting plan last month, The Times became the uneasy epicenter of these debates.
Hiller got a taste of the task ahead during his first large-scale meeting at The Times on Thursday. At an afternoon session with several hundred of the paper's senior managers, Hiller was greeted with silence after his remarks until Johnson stepped forward with a lighthearted request for questions. Hiller answered about half a dozen before the meeting broke up. Later he was scheduled to be introduced to community leaders at a Los Angeles County Economic Development Corp. event in Century City.
Hiller has been a rising star at Tribune, most recently occupying the publisher's chair at the Chicago Tribune after serving as senior vice president for development and subsequently as head of Tribune Interactive, where he was responsible for the company's Internet strategy.
His background has been varied, including a stint as law clerk to Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart, two years at the Reagan Justice Department (where his colleagues included current Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. and former New York Mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani) and work as a lawyer at the Chicago firm Sidley & Austin, where his assignments included first fighting, then settling, the landmark federal antitrust case against AT&T that resulted in the telecommunications giant's 1984 breakup.
Along the way, Hiller acquired a cadre of admiring colleagues and devoted friends.
"He's a man with catholic interests," said John Zeglis, a former partner at Sidley & Austin who later became AT&T's general counsel and then chief executive of AT&T Wireless.
Hiller, Zeglis and several friends kept up an annual tradition of backpacking in the Rockies or other wilderness areas at which Hiller characteristically displayed the campcraft he learned as an Eagle Scout and maintained the group's travel journal.
"We'd notice that he'd read newspapers cover to cover, even before he got into that business," Zeglis recalled.
Hiller is known for an exceptional sense of humor and a predilection for singing in public. "He's a bit of a ham," said one close acquaintance. Hiller allows that his favorite genre is show tunes, although he says that among his proudest performing moments are several occasions on which he sang the national anthem to open Cubs games at Chicago's Wrigley Field. (The Cubs are owned by Tribune Co.)
At the Chicago Tribune, where he became publisher in November 2004, Hiller quickly became a familiar figure in the newsroom -- not the most natural haunt for a publisher. He arrived on election night that year and spent hours observing the operation at a time when a newsroom is at its most frenzied, and later sponsored a series of well-appreciated brown-bag lunches for staff members at which "no questions were off-limits," said Tribune Editor Ann Marie Lipinski.
"We didn't always see eye to eye on things, but he was comfortable with disagreement," Lipinski added.