Sunday, November 26, 2006

Jim Rainey's Long Story About Tribune Co.-L.A. Times Rifts Fell Short

At a pre-game party for the USC-Notre Dame game at the Coliseum Saturday evening, I ran into Dominick Rubalcava, a former Coliseum Commissioner and member of the downtown Establishment. He told me of a disappointing conversation he had had with the new Chicago import as Times publisher, David Hiller.

Rubalcava said that when he told Hiller he does not like the new positioning of the L.A. Times editorial pages at the back of Section A, rather than the California section, Hiller had told him he was unaware such a change had been made.

Here's a man who has not only sold his soul to Chicagoans who are determined to reduce the scope of the L.A. Times as a newspaper, he isn't even aware of recent fundamental changes made in the paper's format, before he arrived.

After the game, when I got home, I continued reading the last of back issues unread during my London trip earlier this month, and in so doing, I finally read Jim Rainey's long piece in the Business section Nov. 10 about the rifts between Tribune Co., and two editors and publishers who were finally dismissed or encouraged to leave by Tribune. Its reads like a roll of honor -- John Carroll, John Puerner, Jeffrey Johnson and Dean Baquet.

Rainey has won some kudos for this piece, and others. But to me, they fall short in portraying just how grim the Times' situation is under the control of Tribune Co.

Rainey, for one thing, can never quite bring himself to writing about the full scope of Times circulation losses under Tribune, which now amount to 450,000. He refers to Times circulation before Tribune as exceeding 1 million, when, in fact, it was very close to 1.2 million. Thus the circulation losses are much greater than Rainey ever writes about.

In his Nov. 10 piece, Rainey has a paragraph that reads, "Promotional spending to advance The Times as a brand also withered from $12.4 million the year Tribune took over to $89,000 in 2004. The paper will spend about $4 million this year on brand promotion."

There is no elaboration in this article as to what these figures mean. What they mean is that virtually nothing was spent during periods of the Tribune ownership on building or retaining circulation. A good portion of the Times' circulation losses derive, in fact, from a planned decline in circulation initiated by Tribune Co. executives. Rainey does not go into this.

Also, while the media writer does report that during a visit to Los Angeles by Tribune Co. CEO Dennis FitzSimons and Tribune Publishing President Scott Smith last June, the two were asked if the perception that Tribune hated the Times was valid. "FitzSimons said such a feeling certainly was wrong," Rainey writes. "He said he and others running the company were well aware that their success was largely tied to the Los Angeles paper, which accounts for a fifth of Tribune's profit."

Again, elaboration is lacking here. FitzSimons can say what he wants, but his record belies such assurances. There is every indication he and Smith have nothing but disdain for the Times and its fortunes. The only public suggestions they ever make for the paper involve layoffs and other cutbacks.

Rainey does report that Smith replacing Jack Fuller as President of Tribune Publishing at the start of 2005 marked a downward turning point in the relationship between Tribune Co. and the Times. He quotes a Tribune executive as describing Smith as "the smartest guy in the room."

This, folks, is not a compliment. And in the next paragraph Times managing editor Leo Wolinsky is said to have "told colleagues about an early meeting with Smith. He said Times editors described their desire to hire the best journalists possible, but Smith said that might not be necessary." Rainey reports, "Smith denied that he ever made such a statement."

Smith's denials are not credible. There have been ample indications that Smith simply does not care about the quality of the L.A. Times and that neither he nor FitzSimons, nor their handmaidens, Hiller and newly-designated editor James O'Shea, have the paper's interests at heart.

There were also suggestions in Rainey's article of an impending cutback in Times foreign and national coverage. These too were, rather uncertainly, denied.

But what was fundamentally wrong with Rainey's article of Nov. 10 is that it leaned toward giving Tribune Co. executives credit for credibility when they deserve no such credit.

Right now, talks are going on behind the scenes about the future of the L.A. Times and what part of Tribune Co. will be sold out of its present incompetent hands, to new, more promising ones. Since Times readers have a tremendous interest in such a change of hands, it is highly important they get the best, most comprehensive information available about what is happening.

They did not get it in the Rainey article of Nov. 10, and it is clear that if it is to come, it must come in outside publications, such as the Wall Street Journal, Columbia Journalism Review and the New York Times, which have no small interest in this saga.



Anonymous Anonymous said...

"FitzSimons can say what he wants, but his record belies such assurances. There is every indication he and Smith have nothing but disdain for the Times and its fortunes."


What would the CEO have to gain by intentionally sabotaging his largest subsidiary? On this subject you're the one who needs to elaborate not Mr. Rainey.

11/26/2006 12:08 PM  

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