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Thursday, October 05, 2006

The robber baron strikes back

You knew it was coming: A month after Los Angeles Times publisher Jeffrey M. Johnson told Tribune Co. CEO Dennis FitzSimons to take his job cuts and shove them, Trib executives have fired him. I'm sure resumes are being updated all over the newsrooms in L.A. and Washington: After all, what journalist in his or her right mind would stick around for the inevitable bloodletting? We know from other "restructurings" at the chain's other papers that what comes next will be bad for both morale and the daily product (for evidence, see the once-venerable Baltimore Sun fight its daily uphill battle). We also know that the end result won't make Tribune much more money than it currently sucks out of the Times and other papers. But FitzSimons, whose reverse Midas Touch may ultimately have the effect of bringing down the entire Trib empire, will press on. After all, Johnson's replacement (the current publisher of the Chicago Tribune) will presumably be far more amenable to slashing staff in an effort to cut costs.

The Times story says the paper's top editor, superstar Dean Baquet, hasn't decided whether he'll follow Johnson out the door. He should. While I imagine he feels some obligation to continue fighting the good fight, it's obvious that FitzSimons and his minions don't plan to let anything stand in their way.

Now, the Times is partially responsible for its own mess: The idiotic Chandler family, the founding owners of the paper, managed to royally screw up Tribune Co. by dragging its gigantic tax liability into the 2000 merger between Tribune and their own Times Mirror. Tribune, which was a profit-making machine before the merger, has never even gotten close to touching its pre-merger stock price since. The delightfully moronic Chandlers have also helped worsen the current crisis facing Tribune; their moaning and groaning about profits essentially forced FitzSimons to consider major changes to the company, which many anticipate will eventually include the sale of some of the underperforming newspapers.

This is not a surprising result from people who had already done everything they could to squander the newspaper's legacy before cashing in. Remember Mark Willes?

That said, the Times has managed to escape the brunt of the painful cuts that other Trib papers have suffered in recent years; when the company built a fancy new Washington bureau, the staffs of nearly all of the other papers, besides the Times and the Tribune, were noticeably smaller when they moved in. But Times staffers continued to complain -- loudly -- about their loss of autonomy and how horrible it was to have everyone in the same office. Former Tribune employees (some of whom wound up out of journalism altogether as a result of being laid off) were decidedly unsympathetic.

Hopefully, Johnson's departure means the official beginning of the end of the uneasy marriage between the Times and Tribune. The blockheads up in Tribune Tower were never able to come to terms with the fact that the Times was the company's flagship paper, and the L.A. folks never got used to being managed from outside California. The union has been a miserable failure from a business standpoint, and there is simply no case to be made that other Tribune newspapers are in any way the better for it.

But if Johnson's career is over, he should be followed -- quickly -- out the door by FitzSimons. If it's really all about money, then the company's financial performance during his tenure should spell his doom.

Update: Michael Kinsley offers an interesting and thoughtful take on the whole mess here.

1 Comments:

Anonymous Nate said...

Wither art thou, CCM?

11/05/2006 10:59 PM  

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