Rebellion at the Times

Sarah Gardner Sep 20, 2006

KAI RYSSDAL: It’s a couple thousand miles from Chicago to L.A. But it feels farther than that to readers of the Los Angeles Times. The Times is owned by the Tribune Company. Based in Chicago. Tribune bought the Times six year ago. Since then it’s cut staffing at the country’s 4th largest paper 20 percent. There’ve been corporate rumors of more reductions on the way. The Times’ top editor and its publisher have taken a stand. They’ve been quoted in their own paper saying they don’t want more cuts.

One day before the Tribune board meets, Marketplace’s Sarah Gardner reports the front office must not have seen that story.

SARAH GARDNER: When Tribune CEO Dennis FitzSimons addresses his board tomorrow, he’ll be under pressure to lay out a strategy for the company’s future. But he may also be pressed to do something about what you might call the “L.A. Rebellion.” Recently the editor and the publisher at the L.A. Times stunned the industry by publicly refusing to cooperate with Tribune execs who wanted further staff cuts. They said it would “significantly damage” the paper’s coverage. On top of that, Los Angeles civic leaders, including former Secretary of State Warren Christopher, wrote a scolding letter to the Tribune calling for more investment in the L.A. newsroom, not less.

GEORGE KIEFFER:“This is a question where you don’t want to wait until the frog has boiled before you tell people that the water’s getting warmer.”

L.A. attorney and civic activist George Kieffer.

KIEFFER:“There comes a point in time when the cost-cutting, no matter how justified, actually erodes the paper and sends it on a spiral that we do not intend to see happen.”

The Tribune Company, of course, is in the same fix as many other newspaper owners. It’s losing readers and advertisers to the Internet. Its stock price has seen better days. And Wall Street’s never satisfied. Media analyst Ed Atorino.

ED ATORINO:“Wall Street wants the stock to go up. I mean, Wall Street, frankly, I don’t think is deeply concerned about the quality of the newspaper or where it’s distributed or whatever. It wants the stock to go up.”

JOHN MORTON:“This has become an industry trend.”

Veteran newspaper analyst John Morton.

MORTON: And it’s regrettable, but understandable. It’s regrettable because anytime you reduce the news staffs of a newspaper you are going to diminish its journalism.”

Used to be the L.A. Times was derided by critics as the “Velvet Coffin.” Overpaid and underworked was the rap at the time. Those cushy days are gone, however. Tom Rosenstiel is a former Times staffer who now directs the Project for Excellence in Journalism. He says this L.A. struggle is emblematic of the decades-long fight between what he calls the idealists and the accountants.

TOM ROSENSTIEL:“The accountants are more firmly in control of the news business than they have ever been and what you’re seeing in Los Angeles is a, not a last stand, but a major stand by people in the news business to try and fight against that with a potential new ally, in this scenario, and that is local interests.”

In L.A., that includes several billionaire businessmen who’ve expressed interest in buying the L.A. Times, including music mogul David Geffen and philanthropist Eli Broad. But the Tribune isn’t much interested in selling.

The Times is still profitable and produces a quarter of Tribune Publishing’s yearly revenue. In a letter yesterday in the L.A. Times, FitzSimons defended his management of the paper, and he noted private ownership isn’t always better. If the Tribune continues handing out pink slips in its L.A. newsroom, though, fans of the L.A. Times may start pressing those local billionaires to get serious.

I’m Sarah Gardner for Marketplace.

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