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New publisher expects autonomy

As The Times' chief, Eddy Hartenstein says he will have more latitude from Tribune bosses in Chicago.

August 19, 2008|Michael A. Hiltzik and Martin Zimmerman | Times Staff Writers

The Los Angeles Times' new publisher, Eddy Hartenstein, said Monday that the newspaper would operate with greater autonomy from its corporate parent in Chicago as it tried to reverse steep declines in circulation and revenue while overcoming the trauma of recent staff cuts.

Hartenstein, 57, who is credited with building satellite television leader DirecTV, was named publisher and chief executive Monday. He is the newspaper's fourth publisher since it was acquired in 2000 by Chicago-based Tribune Co., but the first with Southern California roots to hold the job since Otis Chandler, whose family controlled the paper for more than a century, resigned the post in 1980.

Raised in Alhambra, Hartenstein said he expected his familiarity with the community and with the paper -- which he said he began reading at the age of 11 -- to be a major plus.

"To be publisher here in L.A., you need a local, and I am a local," he told an overflow crowd of Times employees at an afternoon meeting. "I'm a 213 kind of guy, not a 312 kind of guy," he declared, referring to the area codes for downtown Los Angeles and Chicago.

The Times has struggled with rapidly changing economic, demographic and cultural conditions that have produced declining revenue and circulation for newspapers across the country.

But it has also struggled to adjust to out-of-town ownership that some critics say has been insensitive to or unaware of the peculiarities of the local market. The resulting tensions continued after Tribune was taken private in December under the leadership of Chicago entrepreneur Sam Zell.

Hartenstein signaled that he would have greater latitude than his predecessor, longtime Tribune executive David Hiller, to run the newspaper his own way. In the conversations with Zell that preceded his appointment, he said, Zell "satisfied me that I was going to be able to do this the way I saw fit."

He said his top priority was increasing revenue rather than cutting costs -- an elusive goal that has been oft-expressed by Tribune executives. Hartenstein said he would step up efforts to improve ad sales. He offered few specifics on his plans, other than to say he would "talk to any existing, new or prospective advertiser."

He also suggested that his experience at DirecTV would help him break fresh ground in presenting new content to readers of The Times and viewers of its website, latimes.com, while building their audiences.

"All of the folks I know in the content business are always looking for other avenues, other venues, other combinations, other cooperative agreements," he said. "I'm open to any and all ideas that increase our viewership and increase the number and range of demographics we can pull in." Those ideas include increasing ties between The Times and KTLA-TV Channel 5, the Tribune-owned station in L.A.

"I think our society and our technologies and our habits have changed dramatically," he said in an interview in his office before the staff meeting. But that does not eliminate the need for vigorous journalism. "You can have all the fancy appliances that you want, but it is still the discovery, the pursuit, and the active chronicling and reporting of the story that will always need the human touch."

In his meeting with the staff, which has been pared in two rounds of early retirements and layoffs this year, Hartenstein said he had no plans for further cuts, and no directives from Tribune management to contemplate them or to reach a staffing target. "I don't think we can cost-cut our way through this."

Nor did he believe that Zell would cavalierly impose cuts in violation of his agreement to give Hartenstein broad discretion to run the newspaper. He noted that Zell, knowing his experience and independent streak, approached him to come out of retirement to run The Times. "If he's hired me to do this, he's not going to come in here and micromanage me."

"I don't need this job," he added. If Zell were to renege on his word, he said, "I'm gone."

That said, some of the financial pressures facing The Times are beyond Hartenstein's control. Zell's privatization plan increased Tribune's debt burden to a daunting $12 billion. As the largest of Tribune's operating units, The Times has been expected to contribute the largest share of the cash flow needed to service that debt -- part of the impetus for this year's staff cuts. Hartenstein said he and Zell agreed that any discussion of financial targets would take place in six months.

Hartenstein said he was committed to maintaining the global reach of The Times' news gathering, part of what makes it what he called "a world-class newspaper."

"You cannot accurately reflect where we stand in the world without covering the world," he said. "That's as important an aspect of doing the job as covering local news."

Staff members who attended the afternoon meeting said they were impressed with Hartenstein's local roots and "reverence" for the paper. His media background and familiarity with several reporters' work also didn't hurt.

But others said they were waiting to see Hartenstein prove himself.

"I would love to love this guy, but we've learned the hard way before not to invest our hearts in new leadership," said Geoff Mohan, an environment editor. Mohan said he was troubled by Hartenstein's comment about leaving the paper if Zell reneged on promises to let him be an independent executive.

"The test for every good fighter is whether he can take a punch," Mohan said. "I'm tired of good people standing up for what's right, and then reaching the breaking point and walking away."

--

michael.hiltzik@latimes.com

martin.zimmerman@latimes.com

Times staff writer Tiffany Hsu contributed to this report.

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