Monday, June 26, 2006

Chandler Family Is Indeed Dollar Conscious, But Still Right About FitzSimons

In a frank and, so far as I know, accurate and commendable story, L.A. Times writer Mitchell Landsberg made it clear in the Business section Sunday that pecuniary considerations underlie the Chandler family's split with the Tribune Co. CEO, Dennis FitzSimons.

As the late Times editor, Nick Williams, reportedly said years ago, "Nothing stands between the Chandlers and a dollar." (But, of course, this was not true of Otis Chandler, who would rather have had a great newspaper than cut costs. He was shoved aside by more mercenary elements of the family, which have become dominant).

Despite all this, it should be noted that if the present representatives of the family ultimately prevail, and the mediocre Tribune Co. is split up or many of its parts sold, there is little danger that the right wing views of the family will result in the Times becoming, again, a right wing newspaper.

The reason is capsulized in this quote from the Landsberg article of Otis Chandler, in a 1996 interview with Vanity Fair: "If we turned the paper into the far Christian right, as they (other members of the Chandler family) would like us to, we'd be out of business in a year, if not sooner."

Given the political character of Los Angeles, any responsible, publicly-spirited owner of the Times, who did want to stay in business, could not afford to adopt the John Birch-lining views of Jeffrey Chandler's branch of the family, and any sale would most likely go to such a party.

If they indeed follow the dollar, the Chandler family, in the present controversy, would have to follow those parameters. They are not newspapermen, they cannot run the paper themselves, so they would have to sell it if they were to prevail in the fight with FitzSimons. And FitzSimons and the Chicago businessmen who dominate the Tribune board may decide to sell it anyway. As Stalin once said, "Communism fits Poland like a saddle fits an ox." And Chicago control of a Los Angeles paper is not a good fit either.

A story in the Times this Monday morning, by Joseph Menn and Thomas S. Mulligan, reports, meanwhile, that FitzSimon's stock buyback is likely to succeed in the near term, thus assuring a further degradation of the quality of Tribune Co. newspapers, but particularly the Times and the other former Times-Mirror papers. The buyback offer has today as a deadline, and it seems likely to be met.

However, in the longer term I don't believe the FitzSimons strategy will prevail. The Tribune Co. will remain in a crisis, the Chandler family will persevere in its concern about the strategy, the stock price will stay far below what it was two years ago, and, ultimately, the company will have to be broken up, and, thankfully, the L.A. Times sold, hopefully to local interests.

FitzSimons is bad news. He doesn't have a grasp on what it takes to make a company successful. Continual layoffs and other cost-cutting won't do it.

It may take awhile, but I'm convinced FitzSimons is going to fail, and I remain hopeful the Times will be saved for a better day, under a better owner.

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