Tuesday, March 20, 2007

A Lot Rides On LAT April Circulation Figures

Up to now, the Tribune Co. has seen circulation at the L.A. Times drop by about 325,000 in seven years of control, and the circulation figures due out for American newspapers next month will be closely watched. Will the losses grow, or at some point will the trend level out or be reversed?

I know that Jack Klunder has returned as circulation manager, and he is skillful and well-liked. But without investment in the Times future by the Tribune Co., as long as it remains the owner, circulation cannot really go up to any degree. At least, that's my impression. As Mark Willes remarked to me many years ago after he had been around for awhile, circulation is a battle. He had come in as CEO of Times-Mirror with the stated goal of doubling circulation to about two million, But he found out this was impossible.

My own view is that only with a vigorous circulation drive will the Times be put on more solid c ground, and this has a great deal to do with the future of the newspaper, since past circulation declines have undoubtedly fueled the cost cut backs and also encouraged a somber view of what's in store for the Times, encouraging good people to leave.

There may have been other departures, but by my calculation, the impending move of Michael Newman, deputy editorial page editor, to the Washington Post marks at least the fifth major departure of recent months. The first four were Alissa Rubin, John Balzar, Vernon Loeb and Lee Hotz. I realize there have been some hires, but these losses represent a net loss of top personnel.

There have been many interesting things in the paper recently, and the statements of James O'Shea and David Hiller about maintaining the foreign and national bureaus are somewhat encouraging, although I fear continued circulation losses would encourage a new round of layoffs and a continued downward spiral in many areas.

The New York Times reported a few days ago that the bloom is off the rose on the Sam Zell bid for Tribune Co. With the end of March approaching, and the supposed deadline for Tribune board action on the chain's future looming, right now the odds seem to be on continued control by Dennis FitzSimons and his "axis of stupidity," a phrase which the past record makes me loath to abandon. FitzSimons is best known for the policy of cut, cut, cut, which has continually diminished the quality and prospects of the paper.

We can hope for the best, but a big drive to restore circulation would be the best sign, if the Tribune decides to hold on. It would represent a recognition that the policies of the past seven years haven't worked.

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