Twenty Los Angeles civic leaders sent a letter of protest to the Chicago-based owners of the Los Angeles Times on Wednesday, saying that continued staff reductions threatened to seriously erode the quality of journalism at The Times.
Former U.S. Secretary of State Warren Christopher was among the prominent citizens who urged Tribune Co. Chairman and Chief Executive Dennis J. FitzSimons and the media company’s board of directors “to resist economic pressures to make additional cuts which could remove it from the top ranks of American journalism.”
“All newspapers serve an important civic role,” the letter adds, “but as a community voice in the metropolitan region, the Los Angeles Times is irreplaceable.”
Joining Christopher in signing the letter were Los Angeles County Federation of Labor chief Maria Elena Durazo, developer Steve Soboroff, Los Angeles Police Commission Chairman John Mack and Geoffrey Cowan, dean of USC’s Annenberg School for Communication.
They described the newspaper as having a “special public trust, a responsibility to serve the community while making a reasonable profit.”
The two-page letter urges Tribune to put more, not less, money into the newspaper. “If on the other hand, the Tribune Company believes this is not economically feasible given its own financial goals, perhaps a different mode of ownership would better serve Los Angeles,” the letter concludes.
After reading the letter, which was first sent by e-mail late Tuesday, Tribune executives said they welcomed the perspective of local leaders. Tribune Publishing President Scott C. Smith said the letter affirmed the stature of The Times, which he said had only improved since the paper’s acquisition by Tribune six years ago.
But staffing levels, Smith added, are only one indication of a newspaper’s importance. “There is a misperception that counting numbers of people is the right way to measure the quality of a great newspaper,” he said. “You are mixing quality and quantity.”
Smith said that technology would make Tribune more efficient as a publisher. For example, a common editing system at all 11 Tribune daily papers soon will speed production and could reduce the number of editors needed, he said.
The Tribune leaders received the letter a little more than two weeks after a budget meeting at the Times’ offices. In that meeting, Editor Dean Baquet told Smith that the paper had cut enough jobs in recent years. If anything, he said, The Times needed to add positions to thoroughly cover local, national and international news, people familiar with the event said.
Smith told the editor that reductions would be necessary but did not mention an exact number. Baquet and other Times executives believe that a substantial loss of editors, reporters or photographers would be harmful because the paper has already eliminated more than 200 positions over the last five years from an editorial staff that numbered nearly 1,200.
“I am not averse to making cuts,” Baquet said in an interview Wednesday. “But you can go too far, and I don’t plan to do that. I just have a difference of opinion with the owners of Tribune about what the size of the staff should be. To make substantial reductions would significantly damage the quality of the paper.”
Times Publisher Jeffrey M. Johnson said he agreed with his editor that “newspapers can’t cut their way into the future. We have to carefully balance economic realities with serving our readers.”
Other executives inside The Times complain that the push to downsize comes despite the fact that the paper is still a substantial moneymaker. Operating cash flow has dropped from its 2004 level of about $280 million, sources at the paper said, but its operating profit margins of about 20% still rank ahead of most big metropolitan papers.
The disagreement between The Times and its corporate parent has arisen at a difficult time for the Chicago media giant. Its stock price has fallen sharply since it acquired the paper in 2000 and revenue is declining.
The situation is similar to that of many newspaper companies, as advertisers and readers migrate to the Internet. Tribune’s largest shareholder, the California-based Chandler family, has been agitating to split up the company or sell some assets to lift the value of the shares.
Tribune has sold a handful of television stations in recent months. But FitzSimons has been adamant about keeping intact the bulk of the company’s holdings, which include the daily newspapers, 26 television stations, including KTLA Channel 5 in Los Angeles, and the Chicago Cubs baseball team.
This summer, the Tribune chief executive engineered a buyback of $2 billion in company stock and set a target of $200 million in companywide cost cuts over two years. Although those measures were designed to boost the stock price, Tribune shares have barely budged. They gained 48 cents Wednesday to $31.25.
The questions about the future of Tribune’s assets have created an opening for local critics and prospective buyers.
In Los Angeles, billionaires Eli Broad, Ron Burkle and David Geffen have expressed interest in buying The Times, saying the paper would be better off in local hands.
With those tensions as the backdrop, several months ago the group of L.A. leaders began to discuss news coverage throughout the region.
The activists, dubbed the Civic Alliance, had previously come together to talk about other issues of local concern. George Kieffer, an attorney who headed one of two commissions that helped rewrite the City Charter in the 1990s, organized the drafting of the letter to Tribune.
“We have watched with concern as our newspaper has repeatedly reduced the size of its staff, cut the space given to news and declined in circulation,” the letter states.
The civic leaders said that since Tribune’s acquisition of The Times, the paper has suffered not only the loss of more than 200 journalists but also substantial reductions in the amount of space devoted to news.
Kieffer said in an interview that the cutbacks at The Times would have particularly broad effects because the paper sets priorities for many other news outlets in Southern California, especially TV and radio stations.
“What is required here for our region to function well is more -- not less -- news coverage,” the letter to Tribune says. “The Los Angeles Times simply cannot be allowed to shrink to the point that it becomes just another newspaper.”
Tribune Publishing President Smith heard similar objections to proposed cutbacks when he visited Los Angeles late last month. Times executives failed to present him with a plan for trimming their budget, which had been requested.
In a meeting in the paper’s second-floor executive suite, Baquet made his opposition to further cuts clear and said there was no need for further discussion.
Baquet said his discussions with Smith were private and he would not comment on them. But he agreed to speak generally about his concerns regarding The Times.
“This newspaper does so many things,” the editor said. “It is one of only three or four papers in the country with really robust foreign bureaus and that cover the war in Iraq in depth.... We have a D.C. bureau that competes on every big story. We cover the most complicated urban and suburban region in America. We do a lot of other things. You can’t continue to do that if [staff reductions] keep up.”
The editorial staff currently numbers about 940. Since 1999, The Times’ photo department has shrunk by about one-third. The graphics and design department has lost more than 40% of its employees. Large daily operations in Ventura County and the San Fernando Valley, scaled back before Tribune’s purchase, have been reduced to just a handful of reporters.
The debate about The Times comes roughly a year after John S. Carroll resigned as the newspaper’s editor, saying the pressure to slash newsroom staff played a role in his decision to leave an operation that he led to 13 Pulitzer Prizes in five years.
At the time, Baquet also threatened to leave the paper. He told some co-workers that he didn’t know whether Tribune would give him the freedom, and funds, needed to maintain the quality of The Times’ operations.
But Baquet took the top editorial position, he said, after he came to feel “in sync enough with the people who own the joint.”
Rumors have been rife in the newsroom that Baquet will quit if Smith insists on large cuts, but the editor said Wednesday that he had no such plans.
“I’m not thinking about leaving the paper,” Baquet said. “What I am thinking about is trying to make sure this remains one of the best papers in the country.”