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Uncertainty hangs in L.A.

Inside and outside The Times' newsroom, Angelenos assume a wait-and-see attitude.

April 03, 2007|Kim Christensen and Meg James | Times Staff Writers

Angelenos weren't sure Monday what to make of "the Grave Dancer."

Sam Zell, who gave himself that nickname, is famous in his hometown of Chicago for reviving moribund corporations. His planned takeover of Tribune Co., which owns the Los Angeles Times and KTLA-TV Channel 5, gave some readers of the newspaper pause.

"My cynicism is telling me it's all about the bottom line," said Adi Hasak, a 48-year-old television writer who lives in Hollywood. "I know only that Zell's a big, rich dude. What's going to be the difference between him and Tribune?"

Earl Ofari Hutchinson, head of the Los Angeles Urban Policy Roundtable, offered an assessment.

"It does a huge disservice to readers when you have someone who doesn't live here, is not familiar with the demographics and runs the newspaper on a dollar-and-cents basis, with an eye on the bottom line," Hutchinson said.

But some Times devotees were optimistic -- as well as relieved that Tribune, six months after putting itself up for sale, had finally found a buyer.

"It's great because this should bring some peace of mind," said developer Steve Soboroff, who last year joined a civic group's protest of cuts to the paper's editorial budget. "Sam Zell is a hands-off guy, so he will pick good people to run this paper and let them run it."

For many, including Times employees who will have ownership stakes in the company if the deal goes through, uncertainty carried the day.

"This thing has been dragging on so long that, at this point, my reaction is a big shrug," Times reporter Hector Becerra said. "We'll just have to find out whether it's good or disastrous."

In the seven years that Becerra has worked at The Times, it has had three editors. The editorial staff has gone from about 1,200 to 940.

Chicago-based Tribune, which already owned KTLA, bought the paper when it acquired Times Mirror Co. in 2000 on the heels of the 1999 Staples Center scandal. Management, without telling the editorial staff, had shared profit from a special magazine edition with the Staples management.

Tribune moved quickly, bringing in as editor John S. Carroll, a respected veteran newspaperman. He repaired The Times' reputation and led it to 13 Pulitzer prizes. At the same time, Carroll and the managing editor he hired, Dean Baquet, came under pressure from Chicago to cut costs and staffing levels.

The tension led to Carroll's resignation in July 2005. Baquet stayed on to succeed him.

Last September, 20 Los Angeles civic leaders wrote a letter of protest to Tribune, saying that continued reductions threatened to erode the quality of journalism at The Times. Baquet, backed by Publisher Jeffrey M. Johnson, publicly resisted making further cuts. Both were shown the door by Tribune.

George Kieffer, a Los Angeles lawyer who helped organize the letter-writing protest, said he would prefer a local owner, saying the community would be better served "because of the understanding of the community, the commitment to the community and even the philanthropic involvement that the community can expect" from a hometown owner.

Los Angeles City Councilman Jack Weiss, who describes himself as a voracious reader of newspapers, took a cautious view and said he hoped Zell would quickly "indicate his commitment to independent, high-level journalism," on par with The Times' reporting on the Getty Trust and problems at King/Drew Medical Center.

"Those are the pieces that distinguish the paper, and those pieces require resources and the commitment of the ownership," Weiss said.

Councilwoman Jan Perry said "time will tell" whether nonlocal ownership would be good or bad for the newspaper. "I'm not sure that it matters," she said. "Sometimes a fresh perspective without baggage is a good thing."

For Bob Moore, a 60-year-old lawyer and businessman who lives in Shadow Hills, it probably makes no difference whether Zell or someone else controls The Times' parent company.

"My sense is journalists have their own standards, and whoever owns the paper -- unless there's a concerted effort from the top down to change things -- journalists are going to keep doing work that's important to the community," he said.

At KTLA, anchor Hal Fishman said he was waiting "to see how this whole thing plays out."

"It's a work in progress right now, and everybody here is just going about their business," he said. "I'm going to do my newscast tonight, and you're going to put out a newspaper."

One Times reporter, Pulitzer Prize winner Chuck Philips, said the upheaval in the last two years underscored the increasing tensions between producing a great newspaper and making money for shareholders and corporate bosses.

But he took the planned change of ownership in stride.

"The new boss is the old boss -- it never changes," Philips said. "As long as we get to write and report good stories, then I don't care."

Times staff writers James Ricci, Steve Hymon, Patrick McGreevy, Sandy Banks and James Rainey contributed to this report.


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