Friday, March 30, 2007

LAT Cutbacks Must Be Put In Abeyance During Bids

Now that it appears highly likely that the Tribune Co. will be sold to either Los Angeles billionaires Eli Broad and Ron Burkle or to Chicago real estate magnate Sam Zell, further cutbacks at the Los Angeles Times should be suspended. This would afford a chance for the new owners to set policy rather than the old ones who have failed so miserably.

In this vein, and, I assure you, not through any maliciousness of spirit, I might propose that Times publisher David Hiller ought to be rendered into a state of suspended animation while the maneuverings over the sale continue. He is a lame duck and should be permitted to do no further damage.

Security guards could bound Hiller in a strait jacket, tape his mouth and lay him face down in his office for the duration. I certainly feel there ought to be comfortable pads for him, and he could be force fed to prevent losing any weight. While he is immobile, he could listen to taped repetitions of Dean Baquet's speech to the newspaper convention in New Orleans, or converse with another man who probably would not survive a change in ownership, ditzy columnist Joel Stein.

Some might say this is all psychological torture, such as the kind that columnist Tim Rutten opposes for Islamic terrorists. But I think under the extraordinary circumstances at the Times, it is is the least we can do in safety and prudence.

In Jim Rainey's Business section story this morning, he carefully explains that even though the new Broad and Burkle offer appears to be a dollar better per share than Zell's offer, the Tribune board, which has a fiduciary duty to get the best deal it can for stockholders, must carefully examine all the intricacies to make sure that it indeed is a better offer.

Still, I notice that Broad and Burkle are offering to put $500 million cash out front to make the deal, while Zell so far has offered only $300 million.

The Tribune board, which is nothing if not greedy, has already set aside $269 million for golden parachutes for a host of executives that would be leaving under new owners (even though Zell has said he would keep present management at least initially). This was close to the $300 million cash Zell was offering out front.

But, now, with Broad and Burkle offering $500 million, the board can increase the golden parachutes. This may sound like it would be immoral, but I can assure you that such paltry considerations as morality would not stop the present board or discourage the Wall Street stock analysts who have foolishly supported them right along. After all, the board oversaw putting an inept oaf such as Dennis FitzSimons in as CEO of the company, and then rode with him down into the abyss of managerial disaster.

As I say, I put forward all these observations in a spirit of trying to be helpful.

Many other possibilities can be considered once the sale is consummated. Since much of the old Time-Mirror corporate offices are presently underused, a move of the corporate offices from Chicago to Los Angeles should be undertaken very quickly. This would allow the company under its new owners to sell the Tribune Tower in Chicago and move the Chicago Tribune, hopefully downsized into a tabloid, into new, less expensive quarters. As for the Chicago Cubs, I think it would be best to move them to a new city, where the team might have better fortunes, such as Oklahoma City or Omaha. A poll by the Chicago Sun-Times and reported in the L.A. Times Sports section today, shows that 73.5% of those responding feel the Tribune Co. has been grossly negligent in its management of the Cubs. That may be too kind an assessment.

FitzSimons, with his golden parachute, will not need new employment. But Hiller may not be ready to retire. I think he might be induced to go to work for his old Justice Department colleague, Ken Starr, if and when Starr returns to the Justice Department in place of Alberto Gonzales, who presumably will soon be forced to resign for perjuring himself to Congress.

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