Friday, December 21, 2007

Zell Cuts Hiller Some Slack, At Least For Now

Peter Ueberroth, head of the 1984 Olympics effort in Los Angeles, used to say that authority has to be 80% taken, that it is only 20% given. Authority, in other words, comes as it is self-asserted. Ueberroth was successful as president of the Los Angeles Olympic Organizing Committee because he did that.

His comment about authority is pertinent today apropos of statements made by Sam Zell in his first day as full owner of the Tribune Co., about David Hiller, for the past year publisher of the L.A. Times. Zell is quoted in an article by James Rainey today as saying that he intends to leave Hiller in place. He called him "a terrific leader." Also, he said, editor James O'Shea, also appointed last year, will be left in place. Both men, according to this and other statements by Zell, will get more power and be held more accountable than in the past.

Always, with the past policy of centralized authority in the Tribune Co., Chicago executives have called the tune in Los Angeles, and Hiller and O'Shea have given appearances of being on a short leash. They maintained their ties to their Chicago origins, and Hiller's statements in particular so closely paralleled statements issued by publishers of other Tribune newspapers that it was apparent they had either been written or extensively coordinated by the Chicago headquarters.

So, will this change now? In his first statements yesterday as owner, Zell said it will.

But I strongly suspect that the new owner, and new board of directors -- a seven-member body that includes two Westerners -- will be watching carefully to see how Hiller and O'Shea actually do in the next few months in Los Angeles. If they do not appear to be grabbing hold and becoming innovative, they will probably be replaced. And the words used by Zell, "held accountable," may simply mean they are free to devise ways to improve revenue, and if they don't, they'll be out.

O'Shea is nearing the normal retirement age. He won't be around for a long time. But Hiller could be, if he takes the ball and runs with it.

So far, it has been hard to tell whether what Hiller said recently -- for instance about rolling back Times circulation to include a smaller area around Los Angeles -- represented his own views or those of the unlamented and now departed CEO, Dennis FitzSimons. When, for example, Hiller announced his plan to place ads on the front page of the L.A. Times, the same announcement came as regards other Tribune papers in Florida and elsewhere.

Now, if Zell is to be believed, we may hear more about what Hiller really thinks, and what his plans are. But if we don't, I think he will not last long in the new Tribune order.

Zell's appointment of a new board ends the dominance of the old board, which was mostly composed of insular Chicago businessmen. Already, while the new board will probably be under Zell's control, there are signs it is much less insular.

From the standpoint of the L.A. Times, it is particularly interesting that one business executive from Los Angeles and one from Las Vegas have been named to the board. The Los Angeleno is Jeffrey S. Berg, 60, chairman and chief executive of International Creative Management, a Hollywood talent agency with prominent clients, and Brian Greenspun, owner of the Las Vegas Sun and son of the well-known Hank Greenspun. Greenspun, Zell revealed, has a minority investment in Zell's commitment of $315 million to the new, privatized Tribune Co.

It is obvious that one thing to watch is whether Greenspun comes to have a role in the management of the L.A. Times.

But there is a good deal to watch besides. Zell continues to say he will not assert his own views in writing editorials. Again this morning, the copious L.A. Times stories about the new ownership do not even mention that Zell is Jewish, a supporter of Israel and a conservative Republican. Will his hands-off approach continue to be the case or not? We'll have to watch what he does, not what he says.

For the time being, though, those of us who are interested outside observers, have to cut Zell some slack ourselves. He has been highly successful in life, and, as Hiller said yesterday, it's encouraging that such a successful entrepreneur is a believer in the future of the newspaper business.

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Developments in Los Angeles sports are depressing. The ignorant and insular Coliseum Commission continues to stall, as it has so often in the past, on its talks with a major tenant over the future, in this case USC. The commission has no resources of its own to renovate the Coliseum. It simply must give way to USC. Meanwhile, UCLA is muddling along in its search for a new football coach, interviewing mediocrities, and the Los Angeles Dodgers have shown once again they just don't get it, signing a player named just last week as having taken illicit steroid body building materials. The city, meanwhile, is left without a guaranteed stadium for USC to play in, a guaranteed coach for the other major school, and guaranteed integrity for its professional baseball team.

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