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New Publisher, Editor Take Helm at Times

TIMES STAFF WRITER

John Puerner officially took over Monday as publisher of the Los Angeles Times, John Carroll became editor, and both immediately pledged to maintain editorial integrity and local decision-making in the paper’s news operation.

Carroll, former editor of the Baltimore Sun, said he wouldn’t even have considered coming to Los Angeles “if I didn’t think this paper had a chance to be better than it’s ever been.”

Tribune Co. of Chicago announced the personnel changes as part of its $6.38-billion takeover of The Times and its parent company, Times Mirror Co., a process that officially began with a merger agreement between the two companies March 12. The deal is expected to be completed in late June or early July, at which time Times Mirror will cease to exist.

As part of Monday’s reorganization, the first time since 1887 that the two top positions at the paper have changed simultaneously, Puerner replaces Kathryn Downing as both publisher and president of The Times, and Carroll replaces Michael Parks as both editor and executive vice president. At the same time, John W. Madigan, chairman, president and chief executive of Tribune Co., took over as chairman of Times Mirror, replacing Mark Willes, who surrendered his titles of chairman, president and CEO.

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Willes will remain on the board--joined by Madigan and 12 other Tribune executives--until the Tribune-Times Mirror merger is closed. Times Mirror executives who have reported to Willes will report in the interim to Efrem Zimbalist III, executive vice president and chief financial officer of Times Mirror.

Puerner, 48, publisher of the Tribune-owned Orlando Sentinel since 1993, becomes the 10th publisher of The Times in the paper’s 118-year history--and the fourth in the last six years. He has been with Tribune Co. in various corporate financial positions since 1979.

Jack Fuller, president of Tribune Publishing and a former editor and publisher of the company’s flagship paper, the Chicago Tribune, said he has known Puerner for more than 10 years, since both were rising executives at the Tribune.

Puerner was “the guy I thought about turning to right away if I needed someone in L.A.,” Fuller said. Indeed, Puerner said he came to Los Angeles with Fuller and other Tribune executives four days before the Tribune-Times Mirror agreement. He stayed on to supervise the transition.

Fuller said the two worked closely together in Chicago and “often found ourselves allied on things. I discovered that he’s a guy with a real burning passion for newspapers and a smart, highly competent businessman.” Fuller said Puerner “got his MBA in order to go into the newspaper business.”

In a standing-room-only meeting Monday with employees from throughout The Times, Puerner said newspapers had been “my only career interest since college. . . . I wanted to be involved in an enterprise that makes a difference.”

He said twice that his top priority as publisher would be to maintain “the integrity of the editorial voice” of The Times. Editorial decisions would be made solely by the editor and would not be influenced by advertising concerns, he said.

He also said Times newsroom staffers should not worry that being owned by Tribune Co. would compromise local decision-making on news and editorial issues. In his seven years as publisher in Orlando, he said, no one in Chicago had ever told him what to do on editorial matters.

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As for the business side of the paper, he said his primary objective would be to “try to understand the circulation strategy” of The Times. Times circulation has generally been increasing in recent years, but much of that growth has been attributable to single-copy newsstand sales. Puerner expressed concern about the paper’s home-delivered circulation, traditionally a newspaper’s most valuable readership.

Carroll, 58, was editor of the Baltimore Sun, also a Times Mirror newspaper, for nine years. Before that, he was editor of the Lexington (Ky.) Herald-Leader and metropolitan editor of the Philadelphia Inquirer.

In his remarks to Times staffers during Monday’s meeting--and again in a subsequent interview--Carroll emphasized his determination to learn as much as possible about The Times staff, the traditions of the paper and the communities it serves before making any major decisions.

He did say, however, that his inclination is to “put the brakes on” long-standing plans to redesign The Times until he and other editors had a better sense of precisely what they want to accomplish.

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‘Slow Starter, Good Finisher’

When he and Puerner first met, about two weeks ago, Carroll said, he told his boss-to-be, “I’m a slow starter but a good finisher.”

“He’s not going to see a radically better paper a year from now,” Carroll said, “but I think I have a record of having a good long-term effect on a paper.”

He said he had no specific plans to change anything at The Times “because I don’t know enough yet.” He did say, however, that for The Times to be successful, “it must not only be better [than its local competitors] but markedly better, radically better” than they are.

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Because his most recent experience was in Baltimore, where ethnic diversity is “largely bipolar"--blacks and whites--Carroll said the most daunting task he faces in Los Angeles is “how to come to grips with the many diverse communities of Southern California” and determine how The Times can best serve them. Baltimore, he said, was “nowhere near as complex as this situation.”

Covering the many diverse communities in The Times’ circulation area is not only the right thing to do but it’s a “commercial necessity,” he said.

Of the three departing Times and Times Mirror executives--Willes, Downing and Parks--only Parks had been with the company for more than five years. Willes, a former university professor and Federal Reserve system executive, had been a cereal company executive for 15 years when he was hired as chairman and CEO of Times Mirror in 1995. He named himself publisher two years later, when Richard T. Schlosberg III left, then returned exclusively to his corporate duties upon naming Downing publisher in mid-1999.

Downing had been a senior executive in legal publishing when she joined Times Mirror in 1995 as chief executive of one of its subsidiaries. She came to The Times as president and CEO in 1998.

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Parks was a foreign correspondent for 25 years, the last 15 with The Times--winning a Pulitzer Prize for his reporting from South Africa in 1987--before becoming deputy foreign editor in 1995, managing editor in 1996 and editor in 1997.

Both Downing and Parks became enmeshed in controversy last fall when it was disclosed that the paper had agreed to split profits from a special edition of The Times Sunday magazine with Staples Center, the subject of that issue. Downing, who signed the agreement that led to the special issue, said she had not told Parks or anyone else in the editorial department about the profit-sharing deal in an effort to protect the paper’s editorial independence.

But Parks learned of it in time to stop the magazine from being printed or distributed, which he did not do, and the resultant protests about the threat to the paper’s credibility and integrity severely damaged his standing and Downing’s, both within the paper and in the larger journalistic community. The fallout also affected Willes because many felt that the Staples affair was an outgrowth of his avowed determination to dismantle the “wall” that traditionally insulated the news department from business-side pressures.

One other outgrowth of the Staples controversy was to prompt Otis Chandler, the paper’s publisher from 1960 to 1980, to break his long-standing public silence about The Times. He issued a harsh condemnation of Willes and Downing for their handling of the situation. They were, he said, jeopardizing the reputation of the paper he had worked so hard to build.

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Monday night, Chandler had dinner with Fuller and Puerner--at their invitation.

New Board Members Named

Joining Willes and 13 other existing members of the Times Mirror board on the new board are Madigan, Fuller and 11 Tribune vice presidents with varying areas of responsibility--Philip B. Doherty, Dennis J. FitzSimons, David J. Granat, Donald C. Grenesko, David D. Hiller, Crane H. Kenney, Timothy J. Landon, Luis E. Lewin, R. Mark Mallory, Ruthellyn Musil and James E. O’Dell.

By placing 13 members on what is, in effect, an interim Times Mirror board, Tribune technically leaves the 14 existing Times Mirror directors in control until the merger transaction is officially complete. According to Kenney, Tribune vice president and general counsel, that enables Tribune to delay the vesting of stock options held by various Times Mirror and Times executives until the change of control.

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Not only does that delay the payment of tens of millions of dollars, it also delays the possible exodus of any newly enriched holders of these options, which could have left Tribune with major voids in the corporate structure or forced Tribune to make hasty decisions on key personnel. Under the restructured board, current Times and Times Mirror executives will continue to exercise their duties, and Tribune executives will have time to evaluate them and the company and its needs under the new corporate alignment.

Tribune now owns 40% of Times Mirror as a result of its cash tender offer for outstanding shares of Times Mirror stock. When complete, the merger will give Tribune, with 11 daily newspapers and 23 TV stations (including KTLA Channel 5 in Los Angeles), a major media presence in 18 of the top 30 U.S. markets, including the three largest cities--New York, Los Angeles and Chicago.


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