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Times Publisher, Who Resisted Cuts, Ousted

Jeffrey Johnson is immediately replaced. Editor Dean Baquet remains on the job.

October 06, 2006|James Rainey | Times Staff Writer

Tribune Co. forced Los Angeles Times Publisher Jeffrey M. Johnson to step down Thursday, three weeks after he stirred a national debate about corporate ownership of newspapers by publicly defying a demand for staff cuts in his newsroom.

Johnson was replaced immediately by David Hiller, the publisher of the company's hometown newspaper, the Chicago Tribune. Hiller is the 12th executive to lead The Times in its 125-year history.

Tribune Publishing President Scott C. Smith said in an interview that he hoped the management change would help put an end to speculation that the company intended to sell The Times.

"There is both strategic value and a financial value in The Times being part of Tribune," Smith said. "The Times is important to us."

His stance would seem to thwart overtures by three wealthy L.A. businessmen who have expressed interest in buying the paper and a campaign by civic leaders to promote local ownership.

Hiller, 53, held a series of meetings with employees through the afternoon and then met with business leaders Thursday night in Century City. He and Times Editor Dean Baquet agreed that Baquet would remain in his post, a decision both said they planned to revisit after they had had more time to work together.

Hiller said he had no preconceived ideas about whether to follow through with job cuts. Johnson and Baquet had refused to cut as many as 100 newsroom positions, contending such a move would damage a newspaper widely regarded as one of the nation's best.

"I don't have a plan or a set of numbers or any set of definitive answers," Hiller said in an interview at The Times. "What I want to do is come in, get to know the place, get to know my new colleagues and, with them, figure it out."

Hiller told Times editors that he would not have taken the publisher's job if Tribune executives had ordered him to reduce the newspaper's staff by a specific number. He also said he understood the value readers placed on The Times' national and foreign coverage.

Times staffers were somewhat reassured by Baquet's pledge to stay at the paper. Some had predicted that such a departure would trigger an exodus of other top journalists.

"I have a tremendous loyalty to Jeff," Baquet told a somber gathering of senior editors, who packed into a conference room late Thursday morning. "But, as I have said before, the paper has to come first.

"I am going to make as compelling a case as I can about [maintaining] the size of the newsroom," Baquet added.

The regime change at The Times played out just two weeks after a special committee of Tribune's board of directors announced that it would entertain offers to purchase the company or some of its assets. In addition to The Times and the Chicago Tribune, the company owns KTLA-TV Channel 5, baseball's Chicago Cubs, WGN-TV in Chicago and nine other newspapers and about two dozen TV stations.

Tribune bought The Times six years ago as part of its $8-billion acquisition of Los Angeles-based Times Mirror Co. The marriage was problematic almost from the start. But, at least initially, disputes between Tribune's management and editors in Los Angeles had been kept behind closed doors.

The tensions leapt into public view last month when a group of 20 prominent Los Angeles citizens, including former Secretary of State Warren Christopher, wrote to the paper's Chicago management, saying that the paper had already suffered because of cuts that reduced the news staff from about 1,200 to 940. Further reductions, the group said, could force The Times out of "the top ranks of American journalism."

The civic leaders urged Tribune to return the paper to local ownership if it could not meet its financial goals without making further cuts.

When interviewed by The Times, Baquet said he had refused to make substantial cuts or order layoffs. Johnson backed his editor and said, "Newspapers can't cut their way into the future. We have to carefully balance economic realities with serving our readers."

Journalists around the country cheered the duo for fighting to hold the line against further contraction, while some publishers said the intransigence was not realistic in a time when newspaper revenues continue to be eroded by the Internet and other new media outlets.

Johnson, 47, told friends after publicly defying his bosses that he realized his job could be on the line. In an interview Thursday, Johnson said that it became apparent "late last week" that he would have to leave the paper.

Rumors of a change at The Times began to leak out Wednesday. But Tribune executives declined to comment. Smith, Hiller and two other executives flew to Los Angeles later in the day.

Tribune's publishing president and Johnson met first thing Thursday, sealing the publisher's ouster. At the same hour, Baquet and Hiller, The Times' new publisher, met for the first time over coffee at a downtown hotel. By day's end Johnson had vacated his second-floor office, ending an 18-month tenure as publisher.

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