Times editor to leave paper
James O'Shea is the fourth senior executive to depart over a budget dispute in recent years.
O'Shea speaks to Times Publisher David D. Hiller as he packs up his office. (Genaro Molina / Los Angeles Times / January 21, 2008)
James E. O'Shea, editor since November 2006, said Sunday that he was forced out after disagreeing with Times Publisher David D. Hiller's plan to shrink the newsroom budget.
"We did not share a common vision for the future of the L.A. Times," O'Shea said.
Hiller disputed the notion that O'Shea had been fired, saying his exit was part of a larger reorganization plan being put in place under The Times' new ownership. The paper's corporate parent, Tribune Co., was bought out last month in an $8.2-billion deal engineered by Chicago real estate baron Sam Zell.
"Think of it as the changes made at the start of a new presidential term," Hiller said. "In the context of these changes, Jim and I decided we no longer saw things the same way about how to take the company forward."
O'Shea had told senior editors that he opposed the constant drumbeat of cuts in response to falling advertising revenue.
The push and pull over budgeting is a long-running story at The Times, which has seen its editorial staff shrink in the last eight years to less than 900 from about 1,200. At the same time, the paper's weekday circulation has dropped to about 800,000 from more than 1 million.
The staff reductions have stoked anxiety about the paper's ability to adequately cover a sprawling, diverse and fast-growing region and maintain its foreign and national coverage.
"It's a continuing cause for concern, both for the quality and reporting in the paper and for what it says about long-term prospects," said George Kieffer, head of the Los Angeles Civic Alliance and one of 20 prominent Angelenos who wrote to Tribune in 2006, urging the company not to make cuts that could force The Times out of "the top ranks of American journalism."
"How do you continue to cover the community and provide civic education with these continuing cuts in resources?" Kieffer said.
The newspaper industry is being roiled by change as readers and advertising dollars migrate to the Internet and other media.
Tribune doesn't break out The Times' sales and profit, but through the first nine months of 2007 the company as a whole saw publishing operating profit plunge 30% from a year earlier.
The buyout led by Zell and an employee stock ownership program left Tribune with about $13 billion of debt and scheduled annual loan payments of about $1 billion.
Some analysts have said they doubt that the company can generate enough cash flow to cover its loan payments if advertising revenue keeps declining.
Zell scoffed at the skepticism last month, saying that Tribune anticipated a cash-flow "cushion" of $250 million more than it needed to meet its debt obligations.
It wasn't immediately clear when O'Shea would leave and who would succeed him. The next editor of the paper, the nation's fourth-largest daily, will be the fourth in less than three years.
There was speculation in the newsroom that John Arthur, one of the paper's two managing editors, and Russ Stanton, the innovation editor, were candidates. Stanton couldn't be reached and Arthur declined to comment on the succession.
Arthur said that the discord between Hiller and O'Shea was common knowledge among senior editors.
"Jim had not disguised the fact that he was not getting the budget he wanted," Arthur said. He added that Hiller's proposed cuts wouldn't result in newsroom layoffs or seriously impair coverage.