By Hillel Aron
By Joseph Tsidulko
By Patrick Range McDonald
By David Futch
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By Dennis Romero
By Jill Stewart
By Dennis Romero
AP Photo/John T. Barr
This was not just another Sunday at the Los Angeles Times:
At about 7:30 p.m., prim editor in chief Michael Parks calmly left his office, strode to the city desk, and requested the home phone numbers of Mayor Richard Riordan, Cardinal Roger Mahony and Governor Gray Davis, “because sometime in the next hour we’re going to need to begin notifying people.” Hizzoner, His Eminence and His Grayness were shortly to learn that the L.A. Times had been sold to a Chicago media conglomerate and that Mark H. Willes, the CEO of the paper’s parent corporation, was out of a job.
The sale, to the Chicago-based Tribune Co., is the culmination of the Times’ evolution from a family-owned paper with aspirations of national greatness to a corporate commodity with a future defined by profit margins. The only clear winners are certain members of the Chandler family, who wanted a payoff and were only too willing to surrender control of the family heirloom in the bargain.
For shareholders, the deal has appeal, but for readers, Timesemployees and the people of Los Angeles, the picture is murkier. The city will no longer have a locally owned major metropolitan daily newspaper — unlike Washington, D.C., New York City and Chicago. If the L.A. Times follows the path of the Chicago Tribune — the flagship paper of the new owners — a remade Times will be leaner, focus more heavily on local news, and cut back bureau operations in other regions and across the world.
“While it’s being characterized as a merger,” said Timesexecutive editor Leo C. Wolinsky, “it’s clearly an acquisition, and they are in charge.”
The change in ownership obliterates the Times Mirror Corp., while also ending the frenetic and sometimes embarrassing five-year reign of Times Mirror CEO Mark Willes. On Monday, staffers were predictably shell-shocked, but also ambivalent. “People can’t get used to the idea that somebody else controls us,” noted one editor, who asked not to be named. “That we’re number two. That’s going to be the hardest thing to get used to.” On the other hand, he added, “maybe local ownership is a 20th-century notion. I’d rather have a good publisher from Chicago than a stupid publisher from Los Angeles. It couldn’t be any worse than what we’ve had.” The editor paused. “Then again, maybe it could.”
The first rumors of change afoot drifted across the newsroom last Friday. Something about Willes being out. And the Tribunebuying the Times. The chatter died out as Timesemployees focused instead on that night’s editorial-awards banquet at the Beverly Hills Hotel. Willes was a no-show, canceling at the last minute.
By the time Parks started dialing on Sunday, a deal was in hand. By Monday, it was left to Kathryn Downing, Willes’ hand-picked publisher, to handle a Q&A with some 400 employees assembled in the Chandler Auditorium.
As they waited, some staffers joked about becoming Cubs fans — Tribune owns the Cubs. Because many Times employees own company stock, there also were merry twitters about the Times stock price, which skyrocketed over the merger news. Of course, these employees may be looking for jobs should Tribune attempt to recoup its expected cash outlay of $2.66 billion.
When she appeared, Downing looked surprisingly relaxed, if subdued, in a black business dress and jacket, with a gold butterfly pin in her right lapel and a bottle of Ice Mountain water at her side. She wore a sneaker on her left foot and a black pump on her right, and stationed herself behind a wooden podium on the only chair in the hall. Sitting was a necessity, she explained, because “I tore three ligaments in my left ankle.” Most of the morning’s 45-minute session was questions and answers, and Downing didn’t have too many of the latter.
She took pains to assure staffers that the paper would maintain its editorial independence and that Q&A updates would appear in printed form: “We will publish every question except the ones that are abusive and rude.”
As for the future: “They do not envision large layoffs, but I will tell you that the [profit] margins of the L.A. Times are in the mid- to high teens. The margins of Tribune papers are in the 30s.”
An audible gasp swept across the hall.
She quickly added, “The Tribune deserves a chance to make their case and tell you how they are going to run this great paper.”
Why do they want to buy us? asked one staffer.
“We are a crown jewel,” answered Downing. “Who wouldn’t want to own the Los Angeles Times?”
Wasn’t the sale a vote of no confidence in the city of Los Angeles? a reporter asked. And what about the effect on the corporation’s local charitable efforts and civic involvement?
“I don’t know whether there was a discussion on the impact on Los Angeles,” answered Downing. “I can’t tell you what the Tribune would or would not do.”
She added, “I know how frustrating it is to be in these meetings and hear, ‘I don’t know, I don’t know.’”