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Tribune Defends Its Ownership of The Times

The chairman's remarks precede a board meeting that could decide the fate of the media giant.

September 19, 2006|James Rainey and Thomas S. Mulligan | Times Staff Writers

The chairman of Tribune Co. defended his stewardship of the Los Angeles Times on Monday, telling community leaders that the Chicago-based media company had made substantial improvements at the paper over the last six years.

Dennis J. FitzSimons sent a four-page letter to former Secretary of State Warren Christopher and 19 other prominent Los Angeles figures who backed the newspaper's management last week in opposing further newsroom cutbacks.

The showdown could intensify a board meeting Thursday, when Tribune directors may decide the fate of the company's 11 newspapers and 26 television stations amid pressure from its largest and most disgruntled shareholder to break up the company.

"The board meeting is to talk about the strategic positioning of the company," with a particular focus on demands made by the California-based Chandler family, which sold The Times and other assets to Tribune in 2000, said one person who works closely with Tribune directors. The board members "will also certainly be asking management to explain what is happening at the Los Angeles Times."

Last week, the publisher and the editor of The Times, Tribune's biggest single operation, went public with their refusal to make additional staff cuts requested by their Chicago bosses.

The defiant stand by Times Publisher Jeffrey M. Johnson and Editor Dean Baquet marked a turning point in Tribune's rocky six-year ownership of the paper -- galvanizing many reporters and editors, who saw it as a stand for quality journalism, and raising the hackles of business managers inside and outside Tribune, who debated whether the duo could survive at the paper.

The 20 L.A. leaders wrote in a letter to FitzSimons that further staff cuts threatened to remove The Times "from the top ranks of American journalism."

In his response, FitzSimons said the Chicago company was spending a larger share of its revenue on editorial operations than Publisher Otis Chandler did during "what many refer to as the 'golden age' of the newspaper."

He said Tribune's commitment to Los Angeles also was demonstrated by $250 million in capital projects, including expanded presses to print more color pages and an Irwindale production facility to insert preprinted advertising.

FitzSimons also noted that the 13 Pulitzer Prizes won by The Times since the Tribune takeover were more than the company won in the previous 10 years under Times Mirror Co., the paper's former parent company, which was controlled by the Chandlers.

"The Times is, and under Tribune ownership will continue to be, a truly great newspaper," he concluded.

Some executives at The Times immediately rebutted FitzSimons' contentions, noting, for instance, that the editor who was responsible for many of the awards left the paper in protest over staff cuts.

The current imbroglio erupted into the public last week after Baquet was quoted in The Times saying that more staff reductions would do serious damage to the quality of the newspaper. He was backed by Johnson, who said "newspapers can't cut their way into the future."

The impasse began in late August, when Tribune Publishing President Scott C. Smith flew to Los Angeles for a meeting with Baquet and Johnson to discuss proposed staff cuts. Both before and during the Aug. 25 meeting, the Times executives declined to present Smith with a list of reductions, people familiar with the session said.

The two sides have not met since then. Proposed staffing cuts have not been forthcoming from Los Angeles. But Smith last week played down the disagreement, which he called "part of a dynamic process."

Smith said there had been "excellent progress" in budgeting sessions with The Times but declined to say what he would do if his top managers dug in their heels. "I have great respect for Jeff and Dean," Smith said. "And I won't respond to a hypothetical at this time."

Other newspaper industry observers disagreed on how long Smith and FitzSimons would allow the split with their biggest newspaper to go unresolved.

One top Tribune manager said he sympathized with efforts to stave off more job cuts, which have beset an industry that is losing ad revenue to the Internet. Like many of those interviewed for this story, the manager requested anonymity so as not to upset Tribune managers.

But the Tribune manager added, "How long can you have your biggest subsidiary in a sort of open rebellion? Especially from Jeff, who was put out there because he is a company loyalist. You can't have this at a time when there is so much other instability."

A top executive at a large newspaper chain predicted that Johnson and Baquet would be fired. "I hope those guys have their career plans well made," the newspaperman said, "because you do not tell Dennis FitzSimons and those guys at Tribune you are not going to do something. If you do, you are going to be on the beach, real soon."

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