Monday, March 28, 2005

Weak Chicago Tribune Article Fails to Adequately Explore Tribune's Problems with L.A. Times

It's hard to expect that most journalists are going to be able to successfully write about the critical problems of their own companies, but the article in the Chicago Tribune Sunday, March 27, by writer James P. Miller about the difficulties the Tribune Co. has encountered with its purchase of the L.A. Times is much weaker than most.

The article goes on at great length about declining circulation and advertising at the LAT, but it is not even factually accurate about those.

The article mentions a 5.6% decline in circulation to 902,000. In fact, the Times circulation drop has been closer to 20%. Times circulation was close to 1.1 million when Tribune Co. bought the paper in the year 2000.

The Wall Street Journal recently reported a 14% drop in advertising at the L.A. Times. The Tribune article does not use this figure.

The Tribune article, as one would expect, is heavy on quoting the Tribune CEO, Dennis FitzSimmons, the clumsy executive who followed up on the Times' winning of five Pulitzers last year by flying to the Burbank Airport, summoning Times editor John Carroll and Managing Editor Dean Baquet to the airport and telling them, without going downtown himself, that they had to cut back severely in staff and other expenses. Since then, there has been a severe loss of morale and general downward spiral at the Times, which recently lost its sixth publisher in just the last 16 years. Even Mark Willes, it should be remembered, went to New York Newsday himself, and visited with the staff on scene, before killing those Newsday editions the next day.

FitzSimmons is going to have to recognize at some point that Californians do not take well to being under colonial rule. They like to have their own newspapers with their own editorial positions. Under the Tribune, The Times now has an editorial pages editor who has boasted of not voting or living full time in California. There have been reports that it was the Tribune Co. that kept this man, Michael Kinsley, from endorsing John Kerry for President last year, in hopes that the Bush Administration would support a media monopoly for Tribune newspapers and television stations, an action the Administration then, after the election, failed to take.

Miller in his article talks about all the difficulties the Times has caused the Tribune, but he scarcely mentions the acquisition of other Times-Mirror papers, such as the Baltimore Sun, Newsday and the Hartford Courant. I was told on an Eastern trip last week that dissatisfaction at those papers with Tribune ownership is as bad or worse than it is at the Times. Chicago executives are too parochial to successfully run newspapers in Los Angeles, Baltimore, Long Island and Hartford.

The Miller article does refer to a tax case dating from machinations of the Willes regime that could eventually cost Tribune Co. up to a billion dollars in federal tax liability. That would be enough to make any company uneasy.

FitzSimmons, I fear, is fooling himself if he believes, as he tells Miller in this article, that the problems are going to go away.

No, they will get worse, as long as the Tribune refuses to sell the Times back to California interests. It must make such a sale, or the deterioration of its prospects will continue. But who would want to buy the Times back until its possible tax liability was cleared up?

As the Irish used to say, ultimately successfully, what is needed in the end is home rule. I'm sure it's coming eventually. Let's hope the bloggers haven't taken over the world from the mainstream newspapers by the time that day arrives.

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