Times Publisher Puerner Steps Down

Times Staff Writer

John P. Puerner announced Tuesday he would step down as publisher of the Los Angeles Times to take what he called a “self-imposed career break,” and Tribune Co. promptly named his longtime protege, Jeffrey M. Johnson, as publisher.

Johnson ascends to the top post at a newspaper that by many accounts thrived journalistically but stagnated financially during Puerner’s five-year tenure, which began shortly after the Chicago-based media conglomerate bought out Times Mirror Co. in 2000.

For the record:

12:00 a.m. April 1, 2005 For The Record
Los Angeles Times Friday April 01, 2005 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 1 inches; 44 words Type of Material: Correction
New publisher -- An article in Section A on March 23 said the new publisher of the Los Angeles Times, Jeffrey M. Johnson, was born in the Chicago area. Johnson was born in Fargo, N.D., but lived for much of his youth around Chicago.

In a note to employees Tuesday afternoon, Puerner, 53, described his decision to leave the company where he spent his entire professional career as strictly voluntary, although some of his top managers noted the increasing pressure he had been under to expand the paper’s readership and to improve its bottom line.

In a meeting with the newspaper’s editors Tuesday afternoon, the 45-year-old Johnson acknowledged that his long association with Puerner, dating back to their time as executives at the Orlando Sentinel in Florida, created “some emotional tugs going in different directions.”


Johnson added that he nonetheless was thrilled to be taking over at The Times, where he becomes the 11th publisher in the paper’s 123-year history.

“I’m extremely excited and honored to be named publisher,” Johnson said in an interview. “There is a recognition of the tremendous history here. I wouldn’t have taken the position if I wasn’t a huge believer in the organization and in the business of newspapers.”

Johnson said he planned no immediate changes but rather to “build on the foundation” that he had helped establish in his previous post as executive vice president and general manager -- which gave him broad responsibilities in areas including advertising, operations, circulation, consumer sales, marketing, planning and technology.

“We have identified our key strategies as growing readership, managing the business in a smart way and providing good solutions to our advertisers,” Johnson said. “And those are the long-term, enduring strategies that we plan to ... move on.”

Although Johnson officially starts his job June 1, Puerner told executives in a meeting Tuesday afternoon that the new publisher in effect would take charge immediately, and that he himself would stay on through May to help with the transition.

The management shift at The Times comes on the heels of a change at Tribune Co. late last year, when longtime newspaperman, novelist and journalism commentator Jack Fuller was replaced as head of the company’s publishing group by Scott Smith, who has a background in strategic planning, acquisitions and investment.

Similarly, the shift from Puerner to Johnson in Los Angeles marks the ascension of a publisher whose primary training was in business, rather than one who began with an interest in journalism. Puerner had worked for his college paper at the University of Colorado, and enjoyed telling audiences that he had only pursued a business degree as a way of working in a business that he loved -- newspapers.

During Puerner’s tenure, the newspaper won 11 Pulitzer prizes, its greatest sustained showing with America’s top journalism prize. The company expanded its press facilities to print more advertising and editorial content in color. It opened a new daily newsroom in Riverside to cover the Inland Empire, while closing community news editions that failed to make money. California section columnist Steve Lopez and Editorial and Opinion Editor Michael Kinsley -- two provocative new voices -- arrived during Puerner’s five years.

The daily circulation of The Times dropped from 1,018,000 in 2000 to 902,000 last year, as the newspaper gave up joint sales efforts with Spanish-language La Opinion and cut-rate promotions that had lured new, but not necessarily dedicated, readers.

The 2000 Tribune takeover and Puerner’s leadership brought a period of relative calm to The Times, which in the previous six years had gone through three publishers. Before that, there had been six publishers in the previous 112 years, all members of the extended Chandler family, or named with the family’s blessing to run a newspaper long associated with Southern California’s boom times.

Puerner’s predecessor, Kathryn M. Downing, left under a cloud that followed the revelation that the newspaper had shared revenues from a special edition of the Sunday magazine with the operators of Staples Center. Journalists considered that an ethical lapse that breached a sacrosanct line between a newspaper’s business and editorial operations.

Several of the senior managers who met with Puerner in the publisher’s conference room Tuesday said he became misty-eyed as he described his decision to leave the newspaper. The publisher spoke of his pride in The Times’ record while he was at the helm, noting that prize-winning journalism had been accomplished while still managing to expand the profit margin -- by 3 percentage points, according to a company spokesman.

He talked about wanting to spend more time with his daughter, who will marry this summer, and with his wife, Liz. Puerner said he intended to pursue his many outdoor interests, including skiing and trekking, adding that he had long wanted to take a trip to Patagonia.

Puerner declined to be interviewed, but in his statement to Times employees he said:

“I have decided to leave the Los Angeles Times to take a self-imposed career break after five very rewarding years.... I have had rich experiences at the [Tribune] corporate office, the Chicago Tribune, the Orlando Sentinel and, of course, The Times.”

The executive added that he didn’t “have any specific plans for the future, other than to spend the summer with my family supporting endeavors important to them, which have taken a back seat to my career.”

Management associates of Puerner’s, who asked not to be quoted by name, said that his desire to spend more time with his family was real. But one noted the considerable pressure the publisher had been under from Tribune Co. to cut expenses and expand revenue. Another added: “There undoubtedly were other frustrations, other factors.”

With its purchase of The Times and other Times Mirror media properties in 2000, Tribune Co. said it would create a media powerhouse that included The Times, the Chicago Tribune and nine other daily newspapers, along with 26 television stations and the national cable television outlet WGN.

Such media mergers, including the one involving Times Mirror and Tribune, have drawn increasing criticism from journalists and business analysts.

The slow recovery from the national recession dragged down advertising sales at The Times, the biggest and most crucial property in the Tribune empire, according to analysts. Total revenue for The Times peaked at $1.14 billion in 1999 at the height of the technology boom, but since has remained relatively flat. Revenue totaled $1.07 billion last year, according to internal company documents.

In an analysis in December, Douglas Arthur of Morgan Stanley saw “scant signs of an ad recovery at The Times” and protested that Tribune had not been specific enough about how it would improve the situation.

The revenue picture has helped drag down Tribune’s stock, which traded at more than $50 a share in the last year but closed Tuesday, before the management announcement, at a yearly low of less than $39 a share on the New York Stock Exchange.

The outgoing publisher worked closely with Times Editor John S. Carroll, who also joined the newspaper in 2000 -- the first time The Times ever changed its editor and publisher simultaneously.

Carroll said he had found it difficult in the several months since planning for the transition began late last year. “John and I are very close, and I have a world of respect for him,” Carroll said.

Widely credited in the newspaper industry for the run of award-winning journalism during his five years as editor, Carroll said he had no plan to follow Puerner out of the company. But he said he was not sure what the future would bring.

“Editors live from publisher to publisher, and we have a new publisher who I know and like,” Carroll said. “And I hope he knows and likes me. But, you know, nothing is guaranteed in life.”

Tribune Publishing President Smith announced the management shift in a memo to Times employees. He thanked Puerner for his “strong and wise leadership” throughout his Tribune career and called his new publisher, Johnson, someone who had “a keen understanding of the Times’ position and future potential in this very large, diverse and competitive market” of Southern California.

Johnson followed Puerner to The Times from the Orlando Sentinel in May 2000. The company said he had played a “central role” in several business initiatives, including one in which The Times and six other newspapers offered advertisers the opportunity to reach as many as 7.5 million households in Southern California. He also oversaw the recently completed expansion of printing presses.

Born in the Chicago area, Johnson earned his bachelor’s degree in accountancy at the University of Illinois and a master’s degree in operations management at the University of Chicago.

His community activities include the Boys & Girls Clubs of America and service on the board of the Watts/Willowbrook Boys & Girls Club. Johnson, who lives in La Canada Flintridge, is married and has three young sons.

On June 1, he will take the titles of president, publisher and chief executive officer.