Friday, June 01, 2007

FitzSimons, Hiller: From One Stupidity To Another

he Tribune Co. continues to drive the L.A. Times into the ground as its witless executives, Dennis FitzSimons, David Hiller, James O'Shea, a true "axis of stupidity," flail around, claiming to be reforming the paper, while, in fact, everything they do is a mistake. They are the principal reason why the paper is in a downward spiral.

The fundamental mistake is for the Tribune Co. to remain in business in Los Angeles. They are unwanted here, and the paper's revenue and cash flow will continue to descend as long as they are in charge. The fact that they are still in charge is a powerful indication that the new owner, Sam Zell, does not understand their failures and is fixing to compound them. Why, otherwise, would he send FitzSimons out here? He has to believe FitzSimons knows what he is doing, when, in fact, FitzSimons commits one mistake after another and is totally unsuitable for the Times and other Tribune newspapers. He should have been gone long ago.

The latest indication of an operation truly in the toilet is the May 31 memo to the staff from Hiller reporting that revenue is down in April 9% below the levels of a year ago, revenue in May will probably go down just as much, and cash flow is down 34%. The profit margin, he reports, has sunk to the low teens from above 20%. The cash flow was down only 12% in the first quarter, so things are definitely getting worse.

Yet Hiller does not draw the proper conclusions from this -- namely that the Tribune operations in Los Angeles have been a failure and that the failure is ever increasing.

And one shudders to read his prescription to turn things around. He is going to refashion the newspaper "from scratch," add local entertainment features, go back to the zone concept of news and advertising and add some new management personnel.

This from the man who has just gotten rid of key personnel, abandoned TV Guide, done whatever the incapable CEO has told him to do without, so far as we know, voicing one objection.

Californians are very savvy. They can tell when someone doesn't like this state and doesn't belong here. My feeling is they will not come back to support of the paper until it is in entirely different hands, until Hiller, O'Shea, FitzSimons, the whole motley crew are shipped back to where they came from and there really is a sound approach of investing in the future in quality news presentation, and all the little features, like TV Guide, that make up a good newspaper.

It cannot be online renovations -- far from it. Not only at the Times but at many other newspapers panicked executives are trimming the hard news product and giving people more and more things on line.

I have news for them. Most readers care primarily what is in the hard product they receive in their homes every day, not what's on line. I seldom read the L.A. Times on line because its Web site continues to be poorly designed and uninformative. I spend a little time on the New York Times Web site, which is better than the LAT, but even here I much prefer the regular newspaper.

Hiller is not the first outsider to feel that the Times' future resides with better local coverage. In expressing that view, he is emulating that ridiculous Wall Street stock analyst who appeared on the recent Frontline show to say the Times has no business covering foreign news.

I don't think these characters are correct. The Times' distinctiveness as a newspaper is its foreign and national coverage. In Hiller's May 31 memo, there is scarcely a word about those, and the implication is that the tremendous cutbacks which have hit the news hole, Sports, Business and other sections are soon to be extended to foreign and national.

If this is so, there is a real question whether the Times is going to survive. Virtually all the reforms Hiller says he is contemplating will only spin the paper into greater difficulty. The revenue losses are bound to grow.

We have real idiots at work here. And this becomes the more horrible as a result the pressure the newspaper business is presently under.

The disheartening thing is that the worse these executives do, the bigger are apt to be their golden parachutes when the whole edifice comes crashing down. They will leave with great bonuses, and the Times personnel, those still left, will be left holding the bag.

It is a disgraceful, sordid story. Cannot someone give these jerks the heave ho, before they do more damage?

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The screwy Tribune Co. is not the only journalistic institution in a downward spiral because of a tendency to flail about and compound mistakes. We see the same thing at the Wall Street Journal, where, after decades of successful management, the Bancroft family seems about ready to throw over the institution and sell out to the demagogue, Rupert Murdoch. Sheer greed is at work here, since Murdoch has made a high offer, and the Bancrofts have decided that is more important to them than their obligations to the reading public. They're apparently going to take the money and run.

NBC is another entity that is responding to challenges by making all the wrong decisions. Confronted with losing their lead in watchers to ABC, the company executives have fired two outstanding newsmen, John Seigenthaler and Stone Phillips, they have anchor Brian Williams running around the country as if he were a chicken with his head cut off, and they are sticking with the unfortunate choice of Meredith Vieira as an anchor of the Today program, when Ann Curry is a better newswoman, has a better voice and is altogether more attractive. NBC announced in 2006, it would cut its budget by $750 million. It is showing.

Its sad that confronted with setbacks, these companies can do nothing but worsen them with their sad and cowardly decisions.

Al Martinez, by the way, had his goodbye column today, and it was poignant reading. It is so typical of our time that the worst -- the ignorant FitzSimonses, Hillers and O'Sheas -- dispense with the best. For intelligence and ability, none of these three could hold a candle to the man they wantonly dismissed.

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2 Comments:

Anonymous Anonymous said...

TV Guide? Come on, old man. Get with the times. Viewers have on-screen programming now, making a paper TV guide obsolete.

I don't know you, but you must be in your 80's, I'm guessing.

6/01/2007 4:36 PM  
Blogger Robyn Weisman said...

I've read the times for at least 35 years (as long as I've been reading), and I finally cancelled my subscription on Friday.

It got to the point that the best thing about the paper was the plastic bag it came in. There isn't a better bag for picking up dog poo, but I can't justify it as a reason to pay for a subscription.

6/03/2007 5:25 PM  

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