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Digital media a priority for Tribune Publishing CEO Jack Griffin

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Veteran publishing executive Jack Griffin has been named chief executive of the new Tribune Publishing Co., leading a group of eight newspapers including the Los Angeles Times and Chicago Tribune.

The publishing chain is being spun off as a separately traded public company by Chicago-based Tribune Co., which plans to retain ownership of its TV stations and other properties. The separation is expected to happen this summer.

Eddy Hartenstein, who has been publisher of The Times since August 2008, will become chairman of Tribune Publishing, a non-executive role. Hartenstein plans to stay on as publisher of The Times until a successor is chosen.

Hartenstein also served as chief executive of the parent Tribune Co. for two years, leading the company out of a lengthy bankruptcy.

Griffin, who will assume his new job April 14, has served as an advisor to Tribune for the last year as the head of his New York consulting firm, Empirical Media.

Griffin co-founded Empirical Media in 2011 after a short stint as chief executive of Time Inc., which publishes Time, Sports Illustrated and People. The first Time Inc. CEO to come from outside the company, Griffin was forced out by Time Warner Chief Executive Jeffrey Bewkes after just five months.

Randall Rothenberg, who runs a digital advertising trade group and worked with Griffin at Time Warner, said it was not a good corporate fit.

"Time Inc. was peculiarly resistant to change at that time," he said, noting Griffin's long-standing efforts to nudge organizations toward digital media.

"He was far more attentive to digital technology, and the importance of it for media companies, much earlier than most other media executives," Rothenberg said.

Bewkes declined to comment, and Griffin did not want to revisit that chapter.

"That was three years ago, and I have moved on — I think everyone has moved on," he said.

Griffin, 53, comes from a newspaper family. In the 1950s, his grandfather was the editor of the afternoon Boston Post. His father owned trade publications, and Griffin's first job was as a reporter covering the supermarket and wholesale food business. In his early 20s, Griffin traveled to California, where he met farmworkers leader Cesar Chavez and reported on his boycotts.

"I absolutely love the newspaper business," Griffin said. "And, in my judgment, this is the premier newspaper company to be involved with."

Griffin worked a dozen years as an executive at Meredith Corp., which owns TV stations and a collection of magazines including Better Homes and Gardens, Family Circle and Fitness. Griffin ran the company's national media group, which was then a $1.2-billion-a-year business. He was president of the nationally syndicated Parade magazine from 1999 to 2003.

At Tribune, one of Griffin's biggest challenges will be to address shifts in consumer behavior. Readers are switching to computers and digital devices from print as a main source of their news. Publishers have been unable to bring in sufficient advertising dollars from digital platforms to replace the erosion of ad dollars on the print side. And many younger readers don't share their parents' affinity for newspapers.

"It's not a challenge unique to Tribune," Griffin said. "There are a number of ways to go about addressing it, including providing news and information to be consumed on mobile devices and creating new ways to connect with audiences.... I am going to be heavily involved in our digital strategy."

Tribune is not the first company to spin off its newspapers as the industry tries to plot a new course. Time Warner is spinning off its Time Inc. publishing group, and media mogul Rupert Murdoch last year divided his empire in two, placing the more profitable TV and film properties in one company, 21st Century Fox, and the newspapers, including the Wall Street Journal, into a separate enterprise.

Hartenstein, 63, said he took himself out of the running for the CEO position because he felt the job of chairman would be the best use of his skills.

"At this point in my career, I think I would be better and more comfortable being in a strategic role rather than an operating role," Hartenstein said. "I am going to be associated with this company for a long time as chairman."

Hartenstein previously worked as a top executive at Hughes Communications, where he became a key architect of the satellite television industry by helping form DirecTV. He served as chairman and chief executive of DirecTV until that company's 2004 sale to News Corp.

As for his successor, Hartenstein said he has "every vested interest in making sure that whoever that person is will represent — not only the local community here — but also fit in and represent the important leadership role that the Los Angeles Times will play in the future of Tribune Publishing."

Tribune in the coming weeks expects to name board members for the publishing company, which is expected to be based in Chicago. The company also owns the Orlando Sentinel, the Sun-Sentinel of South Florida, the Baltimore Sun, Hartford Courant and Allentown Morning Call.

Griffin, who is married and has two sons (his younger attends Santa Clara University), lives in Connecticut but plans to maintain a home in Chicago.

"Jack Griffin is a serious publishing executive, he's not just a financial guy, and he understands the business," media consultant Alan Mutter said. "The thing I worry about, and the issue that might keep Griffin awake at night, is whether he will have the time and the resources to make the bold initiatives necessary to move a print-centric business into a sustainable business for the digital era."

meg.james@latimes.com

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