LA Times editor forced out by Tribune bosses

by RICHARD PÉREZ-PEÑA, New York Times

The top editor of The Los Angeles Times has been forced out for resisting newsroom budget cuts, executives at the paper said Sunday, marking the fourth time in less than three years that the highest-ranking editor or the publisher has left for that reason.

The removal of the editor, James E. O’Shea, by the publisher, David D. Hiller, mirrors the odd spectacle of a little more than a year ago, when the previous publisher, Jeffrey M. Johnson, was fired for refusing to eliminate newsroom jobs as directed by the paper’s owner, the Tribune Company. In each case, a longtime Tribune executive was expected to rein in costs at the paper, but instead sided with the newsroom and lost his job for it.

The departure of Mr. O’Shea appears to contradict statements by Samuel Zell, the Chicago real estate magnate who took over the company last month and is now its chairman and chief executive. Mr. Zell has repeatedly criticized the previous regime of the financially troubled company for trying to improve the bottom line by cutting costs, and he has said that he thinks the path to profit lies in finding new revenue, not paring costs.

Calls to Mr. O’Shea, Mr. Hiller and a spokeswoman for Mr. Zell were not returned. A Tribune spokesman referred inquiries to Nancy Sullivan, a spokeswoman for The Los Angeles Times, who said, “I don’t have any comment for you.”

Officials at The Times said Mr. Hiller had ordered a $4 million cut in the newsroom budget. Some said he specifically sought to cut expenses related to covering the heated presidential campaign, during a time when such expenses usually spike. Some editors and reporters said Mr. Hiller told them in a meeting in November that he wanted to reduce staff somewhat by the end of this year.

The shakeup came as a surprise to newsroom employees at The Los Angeles Times, several of whom said late last week that they had not heard about a clash between the editor and the publisher and did not have any indication that Mr. O’Shea’s job was threatened.

People at The Times said they did not know whether Mr. Hiller was acting on orders from company headquarters in Chicago or on his own initiative; Mr. Zell has said he would allow each of the Tribune properties greater autonomy.

The Los Angeles Times had a newsroom staff of more than 1,100 people at the start of this decade, but the number has declined to below 900, officials say. Its weekday circulation has dropped to about 800,000, from 1.1 million.

Tribune, whose flagship is The Chicago Tribune, bought the Times Mirror Company in 2000, acquiring its crown jewel, The Los Angeles Times, one of the nation’s largest newspapers and long regarded as one of the best. The $8 billion price was widely seen as inflated, particularly after recession struck the following year and newspaper ad revenues began a long decline.

The relationship between the Los Angeles and Chicago offices has been troubled for much of the time since then. Chicago has demanded cost savings and higher profit — officials at The Times say the paper still makes a healthy profit, despite its troubles — and the view in Los Angeles has been that the new owners are slowly killing an asset they neither value nor understand.

At first, Tribune brought in two highly regarded editors who were new to the company, John S. Carroll and Dean P. Baquet, to run The Times. But after rounds of job cuts and demands for more, Mr. Carroll quit in 2005, and Mr. Baquet rose to the top spot.

In late 2006, Mr. Johnson, the publisher, was fired along with Mr. Baquet for refusing to carry out more cuts. Mr. Baquet then rejoined The New York Times, which he had left in 2000 for the Los Angeles paper, as the Washington bureau chief and an assistant managing editor.

With Mr. Baquet gone, Mr. O’Shea, the managing editor of The Chicago Tribune, was sent to Los Angeles to run the newsroom.

Adding to the turmoil of the last few years has been the departure of two editors of The Los Angeles Times’s editorial page, Michael Kinsley and Andres Martinez, after short tenures.

It was not clear Sunday whether Mr. O’Shea’s successor would be chosen from within The Times, or when his departure took place.

Tribune, one of the nation’s largest media companies, also owns Newsday, The Baltimore Sun and other newspapers, as well as two dozen television stations, the Chicago Cubs baseball team and other properties.

But as newspapers endure tough times, Tribune’s papers have suffered even more than the industry as a whole. Through the first three quarters of last year, its profit was 53 percent below the same period a year earlier.

Newspapers generally have been cutting their newsroom staffs in recent years, and especially those in California, which have been hit hard by the sharp downturn in real estate and, in turn, real estate advertising.

article originally published at http://www.nytimes.com/2008/01/21/business/media/21latimes-web.html?em&ex=120097....

The media's job is to interest the public in the public interest. -John Dewey