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Otherwise Engaged

Preoccupied with financial woes and rebellion, has the Tribune lost its sense of outrage?

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In 1974 a White House under duress released a transcript of President Nixon's secret tapes. The next day the Tribune published all 246,000 words, and a week later it asked Nixon to resign.

That statement to Nixon was a statement about itself: the Tribune was declaring itself older, wiser, and more honorable than Nixon and more genuinely Republican. Those were the days. I wait for the Tribune editorial page to tell George W. Bush he's wrong about torture, wrong about the Geneva Conventions, wrong about extraordinary rendition and habeas corpus, wrong about conservatism. But today's Tribune mumbles. On September 17, addressing critics such as John McCain, Colin Powell, and General John Vessey, the Tribune shrank from adding its voice to theirs. The editorial page quavered, "If they think humane handling of Al Qaeda captives is fully consistent with the mission of upholding national security, the president has a heavy burden to prove them wrong."

The Tribune of 1974 was rich and confident. Today's Tribune is back on its heels, if not down at them, its honor best displayed in its conscientious coverage of its parent company's many troubles. Somewhat like President Bush, the Tribune Company is paying the price for a misbegotten invasion. In 2000 it bought the Los Angeles Times and the many other media properties of the Times Mirror Company. The watchword was synergy, and the future was supposed to be boundless. But the synergies went missing, and the value of Tribune stock went into the tank.

This month the editor and the publisher of the Times told the Tribune Company to piss off. To cut costs, the Times has slashed its editorial staff by some 200 people in the past five years to about 940, but the Tower wants still more cuts. On September 15 the Times ran a remarkable article telling Los Angeles--and Chicago--that it wouldn't cooperate. "Newspapers can't cut their way into the future," said publisher Jeffrey Johnson, heretofore perceived as a corporate suit sent west from Chicago. Editor Dean Baquet, whose predecessor quit last year to protest Chicago's dictates, told his paper, "I am not averse to making cuts, but you can go too far, and I don't plan to do that." A petition supporting Baquet and Johnson swept through the newsroom.

The Tribune newsroom tends to regard the Times newsroom as a collection of prima donnas to whom Chicago is, in one Tribune writer's words, a collection of "hayseed interlopers." But that's the generality. Baquet is a specific. He came up through the Tribune and went on to the New York Times before going to Los Angeles. (His managing editor, Doug Frantz, also worked for the Tribune and later the New York Times.) In Chicago--where he shared a Pulitzer in 1988 with William Gaines and Ann Marie Lipinski, today the Tribune's editor, for coverage of City Council corruption--he's greatly admired. "He's an intellectual straight shooter," says a longtime Tribune friend of Baquet's who asked not to be named. "People who know Dean know he's very, very smart, and people who know him even more than that know he's got something going on. He's not the kind of character who'd do something like this as a gesture. You can't be in a better position today than being a noble newspaper editor against a corporate giant, and I mean that in the most positive way for him. I expect he could bounce out of there and land anywhere he wanted to land."

Baquet and Johnson's rebellion is a surprising turn in an ongoing story. When Tribune Company stock tumbled, the Chandler family, which had controlled

Times Mirror and wound up with about 12 percent of the Tribune Company's stock, began grumbling publicly that the corporation should be broken up to release the stock's full value. Then various LA notables butted in. The same Times article that quoted the defiant Johnson and Baquet re-ported that 20 civic leaders, among them former secretary of state Warren Christopher, had written CEO Dennis FitzSimons and the Tribune Company board to urge them "to resist economic pressures to make additional cuts which could remove it from the top ranks of American journalism" and to suggest that "perhaps a different mode of ownership would better serve Los Angeles."

That mode would be local and almost certainly private. The Times noted that three local billionaires--David Geffen, Eli Broad, and Ron Burkle--had individually expressed an interest in buying the Times.

Last Thursday the board of directors approved the modest restructuring necessary to achieve a temporary armistice with the Chandlers and, more important, created a committee of independent directors whose assignment is to raise the price of Tribune Company stock any way they can. "Everything is on the table," said FitzSimons. This means confronting the possibility that Los Angeles's full-of-itself, Pulitzer-garlanded daily newspaper can't be successfully controlled by anyone but Angelenos.

It's a given in Chicago that the Times spends money as if it were water. But the big industrialists out there who need wining and dining aren't in dry goods. "Perception is everything," says an LA newspaper friend, "and any sign of weakness not only is exploited but ridiculed." If you don't have enough money to waste money, it sounds like you don't have enough money to stay in the game. I don't know--I don't live in LA. Neither does FitzSimons.

Nothing happens at the Times these days that doesn't receive the scrutiny once lavished on the bowels of dying medieval kings. If Chicago fires Johnson and Baquet tonight, David Geffen and Warren Christopher will know by morning. A local Web site, deadlineholly

wooddaily.com, is reporting a "suicide pact" inside the Times: if anything happens to Baquet, then Frantz and two other senior editors "have agreed to quit on the spot."

The other day sports editor Randy Harvey memoed his staff that the Times intended to beef up its Olympics and motor sports coverage by picking up stories from Phil Hersh of the Tribune and from Ed Hinton of the Tribune Company's Orlando Sentinel. By itself this was mildly interesting, as the Times is notorious within the company for disdaining stories from other Tribune papers. But the memo went on to say, "Hersh and Hinton will both take Times Staff Writer bylines, though their primary employers remain Chicago and Orlando."

Harvey's memo was leaked, of course, and promptly posted on another Web site, laobserved.com. The problem with this economy move, site host Kevin Roderick pointed out, was that the new titles will be a sham. Harvey and the Times ombudsman took Roderick's point, and the "staff writer" designation was jettisoned in favor of "Special to the Times." Harvey e-mailed me, "This is life in the Tribune fishbowl. I think Kevin brought up a good point that we needed to further consider, but I don't think the story would have had any legs without the current climate within the company."

Back in Chicago, the Tribune ran a long, candid business article last Sunday noting that after over two years in which Tribune shareholders "had seen their stock drop like a rock," the board meeting was a watershed: it was the start of a process to "dismantle" the company, which "will likely never be the same." I'd welcome the same blunt clarity from the Tribune's editorial page, which could expend it on behalf of, say, Maher Arar. He's the Canadian software engineer arrested in 2002 while changing planes in New York City and behind the back of Canada shipped by the FBI to Syria, where he was tortured for ten months before being let go. The suffering of Maher Arar hasn't roused the Tribune to anger or to editorial comment of any kind. It speaks like a paper whose mind is somewhere else.

Meet the New Boss

Michael Cooke says he's never held a job he didn't later think he could go back and do better. Now he gets to prove it. On Monday he began his second run as editor in chief of the Sun-Times. "This is a different job," he reminded me, for the record. "I'm going to be editor in chief of all the papers"-- all the 100-some titles in the Sun-Times News Group, which is what's left of Conrad Black's global cash cow, Hollinger International. John Barron, who'd been editing the Sun-Times, becomes executive editor of the news group, a misleading title in that he'll be in charge of all operations but the editing.

Cooke ran the Sun-Times from 2000 to the end of 2004, when he went to New York to become editor in chief of the Daily News. "He's unlike any editor we've had," a reporter there told me soon after Cooke got there. "Cooke has made no speeches, has not for-mally introduced himself to the staff. He just showed up and started running things."

That first impression was Cooke's high-water mark. The Daily News wasn't big enough for both Cooke and editorial director Martin Dunn, who saw Cooke come and saw him go. By the end of 2005 Cooke was back in Chicago as the news group's vice president of editorial operations. He's just finished converting the News-Sun in Waukegan into a tabloid--impressing the staff there by banging on neighbors' doors late one night to embellish a police story about an unchaperoned, out-of-control teen party.

John Cruickshank, chief operating officer of the news group (and publisher of the Sun-Times), says the news group is a newly integrated unit that had been a hodgepodge of companies and needs an administrator. "I knew that wasn't Michael," he says. "That's not his strength." He thought it might be Barron's. "I really needed John to step up to a broader management role. And it seemed silly not to give Michael full rein with all our newspapers. John did a great job, but Michael just has an enormous amount of experience. I have Michael now at the Sun-Times working on that paper on a daily basis. I have editors of all the other papers reporting to Michael."

The perspective at the Sun-Times is simpler: Barron out, his predecessor back in. How reporters there feel about that depends on how they felt about Barron--who was generally well liked--and how they remember Cooke. "It's probably a slim majority that are not too happy," says one reporter who isn't upset. "I recognize all Cooke's faults, but he does know how to take a good story and make the most of it."

Faults?

"Style over substance. A little more leg in all shots."

I asked Cooke on Monday, his first day on the job, if the front page was at the top of his list.

"Check tomorrow's. Tomorrow's is different," he replied, and sure enough, it was. Tuesday's front page didn't tout any news the Tribune didn't have too, but there was a massive head shot of a grinning Barack Obama alongside the tantalizing headline "You'd Smile Too, If..." Smaller heads told us he and his wife are making money hand over fist and Oprah wants him to be president. All under a revised flag that read: SunTimes.com. (The flag was back to normal Wednesday).

Cooke gave me a tutorial. He said there are four key elements to a tabloid front page and a successful front page needs at least two of them: "Power of presentation--not necessarily a big headline. Humor. Emotion. Attitude. Attitude being the occasional page one editorial."

What's second on his list?

Cooke saw the trap. "The problem with that kind of question is that the Sun-Times is a really good newspaper," he said. "We'll try to make it better on the margins. At its core it's a terrific paper."

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/Tim Boyle/Getty Images, David McNew/Getty Images.

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