Friday, September 22, 2006

As Tribune Co. Explores Sale of Assets, L.A. Times Is In Limbo

The decision in the Tribune Co. board of directors yesterday to establish a committee of the usually Dennis FitzSimons-lining directors, the majority faction, to consider the sale of Tribune newspaper and television assets or breaking up the company by the end of the year could mean almost anything.

There are some grounds, however, for hoping it will presage the sale of the L.A. Times.

The reason I'm hopeful is that the board meeting has apparently left the Times, and its rebellious leaders, in limbo. As of this moment, the Tribune executives have neither fired editor Dean Baquet, nor stated that they will go ahead with the layoffs and cutbacks that Baquet, and, to a lesser extent, LAT publisher Jeff Johnson rejected last week.

A firing of Baquet, it was indicated, would have led to other resignations among senior executives at the paper, and spun the Times into such a crisis that its sale price might well have been reduced.

So if you are planning a sale, the best thing to do is to leave present management in place. That will keep the eventual price up.

But there are many unknowns. FitzSimons' statements yesterday were murky. He said, for one thing, that he thought Baquet was doing a good job, a compliment he probably would have avoided if he were planning to terminate him imminently for insubordination.

On the other hand, it is clear, that with all its troubles the Times remains quite profitable to Tribune and it will presumably be difficult to for the Chicagoans who run the Tribune Co. to admit that their 2000 deal acquiring Times-Mirror papers was such a bust.

So, it's conceivable the reevaluation now being undertaken will result in some continued sales (such as the Boston TV station just sold), but not the L.A. Times.

On the other hand, let's face it, the L.A. Times fits the Tribune Co. about the same way that Poland fit communism. As Stalin once memorably remarked, "Communism fits Poland like a saddle fits an ox." Ultimately, communism withered on the vine there, just as Tribune ownership may wither in Los Angeles.

In the L.A. Times case, it is very clear by now that the Tribune Co. management is not liked in Los Angeles, nor is its acceptance here likely to increase. There are perspective buyers available, the Tribune plan of cutting back to success, such as Jeff Johnson has described it, is not working, and for the future good of both Tribune Co. and the Times, a divorce (sale) is probably best.

We can only hope this is the way it will eventually be seen in Chicago, even if FitzSimons and his cronies have been unwilling to swallow the bitter pill yet.

In the meantime, two things to watch are the next circulation figures for the Times and other former Times-Mirror papers, and whether the Tribune executives do continue to push layoffs at the Times as part of the $200 million in cutbacks they vowed to implement at the time they initiated the stock buyback.

During this period of uncertainty, it is important that the Times editors and staff continue to be the squeaky wheel in this dysfunctional organization -- making plain they will not accept further diminution of Times quality quietly, or at all. If they persevere in their strong stand, I'm very optimistic the Times will be sold, and then the only question is to who.



Anonymous Anonymous said...

All-souls day is not far off. Perhaps Buffy can come down and straighten things out in her own inimitable way!

9/22/2006 2:50 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

After all his cuts and pushing quality people out the door, sounds like Jeff J. is now trying to play to the could be new owners. Jeff needs to stand up and admit that he and Bob B. are responsible for the present state of the Los Angeles Times. Jeff and Bob made their bed it would be nice to see them stand up and admit it was their decisions.

9/25/2006 1:55 PM  

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