Tuesday, December 25, 2007

Is This The First Zell Move, Or Just Coincidence?

Happy Holidays, Merry Christmas, Happy Hanukkah, everybody!

The year ahead is certain to be a dramatic one for the Tribune Co., owner of the Los Angeles Times, under its new CEO, Sam Zell. Since, in the newspaper business at least, he is such an unknown quantity, all we can do is watch carefully, and hope for the best.

Already, in the Los Angeles Times Business section this morning, there is an article by Roger Vincent speculating which pieces of Tribune-owned real estate, Tribune might sell, in order to pay down its heavy debt somewhat. At present, Vincent writes, Tribune only leases the old Times-Mirror Square, but it has an option to buy this property, and then could turn around and either sell or lease out the now mostly-empty Times-Mirror corporate headquarters. The Times, he writes, is likely to stay where it is in the older buildings on the famous Square.

There's quite a bit about the various options for the Tribune Tower in Chicago. Zell has already indicated he will sell the KTLA Studios in Hollywood, and there are opportunities for sales in Baltimore and elsewhere. Zell has vowed to sell the Chicago Cubs, maybe even before the start of the next season.

All this is interesting, but a small article in yesterday's New York Times piqued my interest more about Zell's plans, since it dealt with the future editorial page editorship of the Baltimore Sun, one of Tribune's big newspapers, and I think the real proof in the pudding about Zell will be what he does with his newspapers editorially.

There is no indication in the NYT article whether Zell had anything to do with the decision to take the editorial pages at the Sun out of the hands of the publisher and place them under the control of the top news editor. The NYT writes that this is an "unusual step," but I don't think it is, in light of the history of the L.A Times in this respect.

For many years, the L.A. Times editorial pages were under the direction of the paper's editor, although it was always understood that on endorsements of major candidates for public office, the publisher would have his say. When I first came to the paper in 1965, and for many years thereafter, there was a meeting each morning at which all the major news editors were present for a discussion and review on which editorials were to be presented the next day.

This has now changed. When he was editor, the strait-laced Dean Baquet did not want control of the editorial page, and it was vested in the hands of the publisher. It was Jeff Johnson who fired the hapless Michael Kinsley as editorial page editor, and, later, it was the new publisher, David Hiller, probably with the approval of the Chicago bosses he listened to so assiduously, who chose Jim Newton as the new Times editorial pages editor. Since then, Newton has reported to Hiller, who might be responsible for some of the goofier stands the paper has taken recently.

The argument for vesting control of the editorial pages under the paper's editor is that he might be better in tune with the interests of the community the paper serves than a publisher who is, after all, a businessman responsible for selling advertising, and conducting the paper as a business.

The New York Times wrote yesterday in the short piece signed by media writer Richard Perez-Pena that, "Newspapers usually try to keep a firm wall between the news-gathering operation and the editorial side, to make sure that the lines do not get blurred between the pages of objective journalism and the pages that explicitly voice opinions. But the Baltimore Sun is changing its system and has dismissed its editorial page editor."

At the Sun, Dianne Donovan, who headed the paper's editorial page for almost six years, was dismissed, her deputy, William Englund took a buyout, and control of the editorial pages was given to Tim Franklin, editor of the Sun. He will choose the next editorial page editor.

It is not, regardless what Perez-Pena suggests in the New York Times, the case that vesting control of the editorial pages in the news editor creates an insuperable conflict of interest, judging from the fact that this is the way it was long done at the L.A. Times and caused few if any problems. At the New York Times, in fact, there's a problem with the editorial pages, where the editor, Andrew Rosenthal, has become very shrill (and may even, next week, be named by this blog "Mistaken Journalist of the Year" for his repeated screeching for a precipitate withdrawal of U.S. forces from Iraq).

The question is, is the move at the Baltimore Sun, being generated by Zell, or is this simply a reflection of his pledge the other day to let decisions at the various Tribune papers be made by local executives?

Maybe the latter, but the fact is, we don't know. We're going to have to watch in the weeks ahead to see whether similar moves are made at other Tribune papers.

Certainly, I would like to see Hiller give up control of the L.A. Times editorial pages to James O'Shea, who seems to have better news judgment.

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