Whither the LAT?

The American Journalism Review asks the question in a major piece by senior writer Rachel Smolkin on the financial pressures at Tribune Company newspapers and culture clashes with the L.A. Times and other former Times Mirror papers. The story opens with an anecdote about Times Mirror CEO Mark Willes, who failed to see the Tribune purchase coming, sitting down to lunch on his last day and warning Times editors Roxane Arnold and Stephanie Chavez that the Trib would be bad news:

He said Tribune Co. was cheap and didn't care about circulation or its employees. The gist of his lecture, as Arnold recalls it: You're going to be really unhappy. You have no idea how good you had it.

At first glance, Willes' comments were ludicrous. This, after all, was the former General Mills executive vilified in the industry as the "Cereal Killer" for his drastic cost-cutting. He had shuttered Long Island-based Newsday's New York City paper and fired thousands of Times Mirror employees. His crusade to blow up the sacred wall between business and editorial had imploded with the Times' disastrous 1999 deal to share ad revenue from a special magazine issue about the Staples Center with the center itself.

The AJR story credits the new leadership with improving the Times, but reports widespread worries that Tribune financial goals threaten to lower the quality of all the chain's papers. The story also talks about plans to reduce the Washington bureaus of all Tribune papers and has some Times venting about what happened when the Chicago bosses, who had never run a paper as big or as good as the LAT, tried to make the new acquisition fit the Trib customs.

"It's felt to me as if we are under occupation," says Simon K.C. Li, a Times assistant managing editor and former foreign editor who has spent two decades at the paper. "Some foreign army invaded. They put in a good governor in John Puerner, but the governor keeps getting messages from Chicago that are really just awful."

Among the "messages" that Li dislikes: When he was foreign editor, the corporate offices stopped cash advances to reporters. The United States had invaded Afghanistan, and each Times reporter rotating in had been taking $10,000 in cash. When Li appealed, he was told that company-issued American Express cards were sufficient. Although an exception finally was made, Li remains incredulous that anybody in the newspaper business would think American Express cards worked in Afghanistan.

The piece has some details of the Burbank Airport meeting where Times Editor John Carroll argued unsuccessfully against this year's cutbacks, and more on the plans for the Washington bureaus. Orville Schell, dean of the Graduate School of Journalism at Berkeley, says that despite the cuts, the paper is getting better.

All posts about Tribune and the LAT are gathered here.

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