Tribune Co. forced Los Angeles Times Publisher Jeffrey M. Johnson to step down Thursday, three weeks after he stirred a national debate about corporate ownership of newspapers by publicly defying a demand for staff cuts in his newsroom.
Johnson was replaced immediately by David Hiller, the publisher of the company’s hometown newspaper, the Chicago Tribune. Hiller is the 12th executive to lead The Times in its 125-year history.
Tribune Publishing President Scott C. Smith said in an interview that he hoped the management change would help put an end to speculation that the company intended to sell The Times.
“There is both strategic value and a financial value in The Times being part of Tribune,” Smith said. “The Times is important to us.”
His stance would seem to thwart overtures by three wealthy L.A. businessmen who have expressed interest in buying the paper and a campaign by civic leaders to promote local ownership.
Hiller, 53, held a series of meetings with employees through the afternoon and then met with business leaders Thursday night in Century City. He and Times Editor Dean Baquet agreed that Baquet would remain in his post, a decision both said they planned to revisit after they had had more time to work together.
Hiller said he had no preconceived ideas about whether to follow through with job cuts. Johnson and Baquet had refused to cut as many as 100 newsroom positions, contending such a move would damage a newspaper widely regarded as one of the nation’s best.
“I don’t have a plan or a set of numbers or any set of definitive answers,” Hiller said in an interview at The Times. “What I want to do is come in, get to know the place, get to know my new colleagues and, with them, figure it out.”
Hiller told Times editors that he would not have taken the publisher’s job if Tribune executives had ordered him to reduce the newspaper’s staff by a specific number. He also said he understood the value readers placed on The Times’ national and foreign coverage.
Times staffers were somewhat reassured by Baquet’s pledge to stay at the paper. Some had predicted that such a departure would trigger an exodus of other top journalists.
“I have a tremendous loyalty to Jeff,” Baquet told a somber gathering of senior editors, who packed into a conference room late Thursday morning. “But, as I have said before, the paper has to come first.
“I am going to make as compelling a case as I can about [maintaining] the size of the newsroom,” Baquet added.
The regime change at The Times played out just two weeks after a special committee of Tribune’s board of directors announced that it would entertain offers to purchase the company or some of its assets. In addition to The Times and the Chicago Tribune, the company owns KTLA-TV Channel 5, baseball’s Chicago Cubs, WGN-TV in Chicago and nine other newspapers and about two dozen TV stations.
Tribune bought The Times six years ago as part of its $8-billion acquisition of Los Angeles-based Times Mirror Co. The marriage was problematic almost from the start. But, at least initially, disputes between Tribune’s management and editors in Los Angeles had been kept behind closed doors.
The tensions leapt into public view last month when a group of 20 prominent Los Angeles citizens, including former Secretary of State Warren Christopher, wrote to the paper’s Chicago management, saying that the paper had already suffered because of cuts that reduced the news staff from about 1,200 to 940. Further reductions, the group said, could force The Times out of “the top ranks of American journalism.”
The civic leaders urged Tribune to return the paper to local ownership if it could not meet its financial goals without making further cuts.
When interviewed by The Times, Baquet said he had refused to make substantial cuts or order layoffs. Johnson backed his editor and said, “Newspapers can’t cut their way into the future. We have to carefully balance economic realities with serving our readers.”
Journalists around the country cheered the duo for fighting to hold the line against further contraction, while some publishers said the intransigence was not realistic in a time when newspaper revenues continue to be eroded by the Internet and other new media outlets.
Johnson, 47, told friends after publicly defying his bosses that he realized his job could be on the line. In an interview Thursday, Johnson said that it became apparent “late last week” that he would have to leave the paper.
Rumors of a change at The Times began to leak out Wednesday. But Tribune executives declined to comment. Smith, Hiller and two other executives flew to Los Angeles later in the day.
Tribune’s publishing president and Johnson met first thing Thursday, sealing the publisher’s ouster. At the same hour, Baquet and Hiller, The Times’ new publisher, met for the first time over coffee at a downtown hotel. By day’s end Johnson had vacated his second-floor office, ending an 18-month tenure as publisher.
Tribune’s reassertion of control over The Times appeared to put a damper on hopes by some in Los Angeles that the paper could be returned to local ownership.
Beginning more than a year ago, three Los Angeles-based magnates -- entertainment mogul David Geffen, supermarket investor Ron Burkle and philanthropist Eli Broad -- said they would be interested in buying The Times.
Several prominent civic leaders said they were concerned about Johnson’s ouster and the hardening of the Chicago company’s position against a sale. The changes at the paper “just add to the anxiety and worry here,” said Antonia Hernandez, president of the California Community Foundation, one of the region’s largest charitable groups.
The wider journalism community also expressed concern about changes at The Times.
“We have gone from a business model where there were some preserves for the public interest ... to one where it’s ever more driven by Wall Street and the bottom line,” said Orville Schell, dean of UC Berkeley’s graduate journalism school.
Johnson’s ouster brought The Times’ newsroom to a standstill. Reporters and editors knew Johnson could be in trouble but had hoped he might survive at least until Tribune resolved the larger questions about the future of the corporation.
“The staff is universally upset about Jeff Johnson’s firing,” said Sue Horton, an editor for The Times’ California section. “Every member of the staff I’ve spoken to is understandably nervous. We all know that Dean has drawn a line he won’t cross with regard to cuts.”
The announcement of the top-level changes came relatively late in the trading day on Wall Street. Tribune shares closed down 9 cents at $32.88.
Although Johnson’s fight with Tribune came to a head over proposals to cut newsroom staff, the dispute was more deeply seated -- in a clash of cultures between the Los Angeles paper and its Chicago parent.
Previous managers in Los Angeles had complained about being micromanaged and hemmed in by their Midwestern bosses. Tribune insiders protested that The Times was flabby and in need of tighter management, even if it did produce award-winning journalism.
Several people inside the company drew parallels between Johnson and his predecessor, John P. Puerner. Both were sent to The Times as publishers after distinguished careers at Tribune and both grew to love the paper, which earned 11 Pulitzer prizes during Puerner’s tenure. Both grew weary of repeated rounds of budget cutting, leading some inside Tribune to see them as “going native.”
Puerner lodged his objections mostly in private and did not criticize Tribune when he left the company in March 2005 after five years at the helm in Los Angeles. A few months later, Editor John S. Carroll also left The Times, saying that the push for staff cuts hastened his retirement.
Johnson’s tenure at the paper was considerably shorter. His executive staff found it surprising that he was being jettisoned for not making enough job cuts, since he had been known inside the company as an aggressive cost cutter. The Times’ workforce has dropped from 5,300 to about 2,800 since Tribune’s takeover in 2000 -- with the editorial operation suffering only a fraction of the cuts that hit other divisions.
Although the editorial cuts brought the conflict with Chicago into the open, Johnson and Smith had fought before -- particularly over a requirement that any new initiatives at the paper be undertaken at little or no additional cost. Johnson told associates that he was frustrated, for instance, when Chicago held up plans for new Internet sites, including one focused on travel and another on entertainment.
The publisher and his allies considered the newspaper a national brand and hoped to build an improved website around The Times’ name. But Tribune wanted a more centralized approach that would draw more heavily on all the company’s 11 newspapers.
Smith and other Tribune managers believed that the business had to shrink rapidly to meet the reconfigured size of the audience, but Johnson argued that The Times needed to spend more to make more -- fighting for a larger audience and more advertisers.
“Jeff told them, ‘If you are going to block my growth strategies and I’m just going to keep cutting, I’m not sure what the job is,’ ” said one co-worker who asked not to be named because the outgoing publisher spoke to him confidentially.
Johnson said he had no regrets about his tenure or how it ended. “We agreed on a lot of things, but we just had some other areas we didn’t agree on that were important to me,” Johnson said. “So Scott asked me to leave. And I did.”
(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX)
Aug. 25: Tribune Publishing President Scott C. Smith flies to Los Angeles to meet with Times Publisher Jeffrey M. Johnson and Editor Dean Baquet to discuss proposed staff cuts. The Times executives decline to present Smith with a list of reductions.
Sept. 13: Twenty Los Angeles civic leaders send a letter of protest to Tribune, saying that continued staff reductions threaten to seriously erode the quality of journalism at The Times.
Sept. 14: Johnson and Baquet go public in an article in The Times with their resistance to staff cuts, with Johnson saying, “Newspapers can’t cut their way into the future.”
Sept. 19: Johnson is summoned to Tribune’s Chicago headquarters and emerges with the situation apparently defused. In a statement the next day, Johnson stresses common ground with Smith and a need to have The Times and Tribune “working together.”
Sept. 21: Tribune names a committee of independent directors to explore options that could include sales of The Times or other properties, or a sale of the entire company.
Oct. 5: Tribune executives including Smith fly to Los Angeles and force Johnson to resign.
Los Angeles Times