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LA Times to LA: Save Us

The Trib's prima donna sister reacts to the latest insult from the Tower.

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The Republican Party rose up with the Chicago Tribune in the 1850s, and a century and a half later they're flat on their backs together--the GOP seeing stars on page one, the Trib in its own business section. In the 70s the paper covered itself with glory by publishing the first batch of the Watergate tapes. Today it's righteously covering the collapse of the Tribune Company media empire.

On its home page the Tribune rightly posts not only its own stories, which are doleful enough, but the surly reporting of the faithless Los Angeles Times. You can find, for example, Tim Rutten's "Regarding Media" column of November 11, a barely disguised lecture to his paper's new publisher, David Hiller. "You have to understand what makes The Times unique among major American newspapers," Rutten writes. "Alone among the country's leading papers, this one is simultaneously the most important news organization in a vast region, the Western United States, the most influential source of news in the largest and most important state in the country and the hometown newspaper of one of the world's greatest and most important cities. At the same time, it is a paper with a national and international reach because the size, interests and sophistication of its local readership require those things. Finally, the demographic realities of the world's most ethnically and culturally diverse region dictate special obligations when it comes to coverage of Latin America and the Pacific Rim."

All this is now Hiller's staggering responsibility, and he's come to town bringing what? Rutten doesn't make a list, but I don't think he'd mind if his readers did: Knowledge of whatever it is they know about in Chicago--that's what he brings. Hog butchering. Newspaper butchering. Whatever.

One thing Hiller brought was a message to the Times staff, and Rutten quotes from it. "What we do in applying our great resources to our mission and business has to follow our vision of where we are taking the business over the next five years and beyond. It is clear that some of this will require moving resources from print to online, and other growth areas. It also means continuing to reduce costs in the core print business, across every area of the company and doing so thoughtfully and strategically."

Then Rutten sets Hiller straight. "If the Tribune Co. or its successor as owner of the Los Angeles Times continues to 'reduce costs' by cutting the paper's staff in the interests of maintaining a profit margin of 20% or better, then the only way to reinvigorate local coverage and to establish the kind of strong online presence that will guarantee the paper's future is to stop doing something we now do for readers or to do it less thoroughly and less well, hoping that those readers just won't mind. Nothing is impossible, of course, but some things are highly improbable."

LA Times to LA: Save us.

The Times's enraptured self-regard has driven the Tower nuts ever since the Tribune Company bought the Times Mirror Company six years ago. The Tribune Company has dispatched one prefect after another to LA to rein it in. Two publishers went native--"drank the Kool-Aid," as they say at the Times--and disappeared. Most recently it was Jeffrey Johnson, who in September backed editor Dean Baquet when Baquet defied the Tower's latest directive to make staff cuts. So the Tower bounced Johnson and sent in Hiller, who'd been the Tribune's publisher, to occupy the Green Zone and suppress the rebels, and last week Hiller fired Baquet. Consternation swept the Times.

The Tower replaced Baquet with James O'Shea, the Tribune's managing editor, who at 63 is too old to worry about what this will do to his career. The appointment's an insult to the Times--replacing its editorial number one with the number two of a lesser paper. And as Rutten tartly observed, the Times is now being run by a publisher and an editor "neither of whom ever has lived or worked in Los Angeles." But Baquet spoke well of O'Shea, and so did managing editor Doug Frantz, another Tribune alum, when he introduced him to the staff Monday. Standing on the same desk where Baquet had said good-bye, O'Shea said hello.

"Are you going to drink the Kool-Aid?" someone asked. O'Shea said he was an Irish whiskey man.

He said he hadn't gone west to dismantle the Times, and when he was asked how he could justify obeying the marching orders Baquet had defied, he said he wasn't sure he could. "If I think there is too much staff I will say so," the Times quoted him as saying. "And if I think there is not enough I will say that too." He also said their newsroom wasn't much different from the Tribune newsroom--neither one likes what the Tower is telling it to do, and both are resisting.

The most surprisingly candid thing he said was that he didn't know how long he'd be there. By early next year, he said, the Times would probably have new owners. "And that could be better for everybody here. But don't kid yourself. It could also be worse, a lot worse."

Everything the Tribune Company is and owns is up for bid, and out of a muddle of civic, entrepreneurial, and ego-driven motives, possible Times saviors have been lining up. Billionaire David Geffen told the Tower he wants to buy the Times. Two other LA billionaires, Eli Broad and Ron Burkle, are talking about buying the entire company.

"Within the communities that matter here," a journalist friend in LA e-mailed me, "the Tribune has evolved from potential savior to Darth Vader. Nothing less....While 20-plus-percent profit margins hardly raise an eyebrow in Chicago...those sorts of profits are recognized for what they are in LA, obscene and unnecessarily regressive. If the studios could count on that kind of return on all their products--well, they know it's impossible."

As for O'Shea, my friend went on, "not only will he/Tribune be despised within the walls of the building but also in the Hollywood community, which is blog-happy and extremely vocal when it comes to its own well-being. As you know, LA is quite a bit more literate and media savvy than anyone in Chicago gives it credit for being."

In Chicago O'Shea's being succeeded by two new managing editors, George de Lama for news and James Warren for features. It looks like a bake-off to decide who will one day succeed editor Ann Marie Lipinski, but it may not be: a lot of Tribune staffers would put their money on Tim Franklin, a former Tribune sports and financial editor who's now editor of the Tribune Company's Baltimore Sun. Of course, these predictions suppose a recognizable Tribune Company down the road--not the safest of assumptions. Last Sunday's Tribune reported that the massive Gannett chain, publisher of USA Today, is the latest to kick the Tribune Company's tires. Handing the Tribune to Gannett would be like turning over the New York City Ballet to Radio City Music Hall.

News Bites

aDewey Defeats Truman? The 2004 exit polls? Are these disasters the reason the Web sites of various major newspapers at midday the day after elections were being so timid? Tribune: "Senate unsettled." Sun-Times: "Dems edge toward erasing GOP majority in Senate." New York Times: "Senate Hangs on Virginia and Montana." Washington Post: "Democrats Win House, Va. Senate Race Pending."

By then just about everyone but the Times had conceded Montana to Democrat Jon Tester--erasing the GOP majority in the Senate--and with virtually all votes counted, Democrat James Webb led incumbent George Allen by some 7,000 votes in Virginia. The Senate didn't hang in the balance. Barring an unlikely reversal in a Virginia recount, the Democrats had taken it over. Over in the blogosphere, the national conversation was already proceeding on that basis.

aThe local newscasts on election night were mercilessly parochial. Alexi Giannoulias's eager-beaver acceptance speech had its charms, David McSweeney's dour postmortem its fascinations. But it wasn't until Jesse Jackson Sr., a talking head back at one of the studios, mentioned in passing

that Maryland looked good for the Democrats that I had any idea the Senate could be going Democratic. At around 11:30 I turned off the set and went online. If this denied me the chance to hear a reporter live at a suburban banquet hall parse Christine Radogno's concession speech while in the background balloons leaked helium--well, knowledge never comes without a cost.

aAnyone who voted for David McSweeney in Illinois' Eighth Congressional District and saw the same sour interview I did must have felt a little less sorry he lost. But no defeated candidate did a better job of lightening the burden of regrets than Tony Peraica, with his midnight let's-storm-the-Reichstag march on the county clerk's office. As a worker there marveled the day after, "He's like one of those politicians in one of those other countries."

aReader Cliff Grammich spotted my note last week ripping the Sun-Times for endorsing Todd Stroger and wondered what the paper had said the last time someone tried to get elected that way. In 2004 Congressman Bill Lipinski announced his retirement after the primary, and his son Daniel took his spot on the November ballot without being nominated by anyone but party bosses. The Sun-Times made no endorsement. The editorial page said that because the son "was basically handed the seat by his powerful father...voters were cheated out of an opportunity to choose."

aCredit where due. The headline over John Kass's November 8 column, "Vallas in Philly and we get a WC field," was written by Tribune copy editor Charles Dickinson, whose novels are just as good.

aLead in November 14 Sun-Times story: "Former New York Times reporter Judith Miller, famously imprisoned because she refused to identify her source to U.S. Attorney and Special Prosecutor Patrick Fitzgerald, on Monday testified on his office's behalf."

Headline to the same story: "Infamous reporter testifies in Hamas case."

Infamous doesn't mean infamous, which, to cite Webster's, means "notoriously evil." Say what you will about Miller, she isn't that.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): AP photo/Bill Haber, Chicago Tribune photo by Bob Fila.

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