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Deal or No Deal 

Broad, Burkle, Geffen... when it comes to the Times, whose briefcase is bigger?

Wednesday, Nov 8 2006
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MORE AND MORE, THE NEWSPAPER on Spring Street is beginning to resemble Deal or No Deal. Forget all those ink-stained news males: bring on the female eye candy. Or better yet, the really rich guys. Hollywood mogul David Geffen is still an enthusiastic contestant to buy the Los Angeles Times; in fact, he’s so eager he’s already planning what he’ll do once he owns it (more on that below). Like any great game show, though, the stakes just got raised. On Wednesday two other Los Angeles billionaires, investor tycoon Eli Broad and supermarket magnate Ron Burkle, have opened their briefcases. Only this time, fueled either by local pride or a lower-than-expected sale price, Broad and Burkle jointly submitted a bid to acquire the Times’ big-media, loser parent Tribune Co.

As if that weren’t enough excitement, this comes a day after rebellious L.A. Times editor Dean Baquet, who refused to cooperate on further staff cuts with new publisher and Tribune Co. bagman David Hiller, was ejected from the game altogether and replaced with Chicago Tribune managing editor James O’Shea, who starts Monday, November 13. Baquet’s ouster, following just weeks after former publisher Jeff Johnson fell on his sword over Chicago’s dictate to gut L.A., was always a question of if, not when. Even so, as if cued by Howie Mandel himself, the fallen editor’s announcement that he’d rather leave than cut more drew thunderous applause from the newsroom. So midway through this game, let’s look at who’s winning and who’s losing:

Loser:Los Angeles Times writers and reporters, who still had to cover the midterm elections and all the other local and national news from the still-undecided races in the midst of explosive and emotional internal announcements leaking out Tuesday.

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Winner:Los Angeles Times readers, since one way or another, the odds are good they’ll get a hometown paper owned by locals. Geffen and Broad claim they’re committed to quality. Burkle just wants to keep his name out of the paper, so consider him Broad’s silent partner (but as a big-donor Democrat, he may have designs on the editorial and opinion sections). And O’Shea is just a short-timer since he’s 63 and only has a two-year contract to stay in Los Angeles. His wife of 33 years isn’t even moving west with him. I’m told O’Shea — a newspaperman’s newspaperman (isn’t every managing editor?) who has a background in foreign, national, business and investigative news — knows the lifeblood of any great paper is local coverage. (John Carroll and Dean Baquet sure didn’t.) He’ll carry out Hiller’s recent memo about more emphasis on local coverage to the letter. Here’s how I know: I’m told O’Shea gathered all the metro editors at the Trib last year and passionately told them that, “No matter what we do — covering the war in Iraq, the Middle East, anywhere — if we don’t own the local story of the investigations of City Hall, then we failed our readers as a newspaper. Let’s get organized and figure out how we’re going to staff it and approach it and own it.” As for Carroll and Baquet, they showed that kind of passion only when blatantly shooting for (and often badly missing) Pulitzer Prizes.

Loser: Dean Baquet, a.k.a. Dean of Arc, who took his role as the rebel so seriously he began to transform into the news business’ Che Guevara. I’m told Hiller came out here gunning to fire him immediately and talked to O’Shea as long as a month ago about taking the job. But O’Shea spoke to both Hiller and Baquet (a longtime friend) in an attempt to get them to work together for at least a few weeks. It was impossible. Baquet was toast.

I know that Baquet had been seriously contemplating what he’d do if he left, voluntarily or involuntarily. After working in journalism for 19 years, he’d take a little time, smoke some cigars and finish reading a couple of books. But then he’d get right back in the saddle and find another newsroom job.

Winner: Also Baquet, because he goes out looking like a martyr. And who knows — maybe Broad or Burkle will bring him back. After all, as I reported previously, an investigative story about Burkle ended up being put on the back burner by Baquet in June after Burkle’s name surfaced as one of the paper’s billionaire suitors. Not to mention that after that speech he gave recently to a gathering of managing editors in his hometown of New Orleans, urging them to “put up more of a fight” against budget-slashing owners, he’ll be welcomed with open arms at The Washington Post or The New York Times. They love that shit. So don’t cry for Dean (like the poor saps in the L.A. Times newsroom who’ll soon be laid off did); he’ll be fine.

Loser: David Geffen, if Broad and Burkle outgame him by buying the entire parent company first, whereas Geffen only wanted the paper and not the other assets.

Winner: Also David Geffen, because no one outgames Geffen. Everyone in Hollywood knows that. Besides, look at the lengths he’s going to make the paper his. First, there are all those recent art sales he’s making. True, he’s timed it to the top of the art market, but the hundreds of millions of dollars he’s getting could be going into his war chest to buy the L.A. Times. Even if Burkle and Broad beat him to the first bid, Geffen is well positioned to get what he wants. Consider his friendship with Tribune investor John W. Rogers Jr., the Ariel Capital Management chairman and CEO, as well as with Rogers’ protégée and powerhouse Ariel president Mellody Hobson, who sits on the board of DreamWorks Animation. When Hobson visits Los Angeles, she sometimes stays at Geffen’s mansions. I’ve already reported how Geffen’s pursuit of the Tribune Co.’s troubled outpost not only hasn’t flagged, it has fired up, and not just because the paper’s 20 percent profit margin is so much better than the 6 percent earned by his bonds. Anyone familiar with Hollywood knows how relentless Geffen can be: What David wants, David gets.

Now I’m told Geffen is starting to plan what he intends to do to the paper once it’s his. Here’s what he’s saying to friends: He’ll pour money into more hires. He plans to stuff the paper with name writers and journalism stars. (Of course, he’ll raid The New York Times, where Frank Rich and his wife, Alex Witchel, are his good friends and occasional overnight guests. So are Nora Ephron and Nick Pileggi. So are a lot of literati.) He’ll demand quality. He’ll ratchet up the Web site (even though he hates how prohibitively expensive it is to do that). He’ll figure out a way to bring in Latinos as readers.

Geffen hates how boring, badly written, inconsequential and pedestrian the L.A. Times’ editorial and opinion section is. He thinks nobody reads it. He knows nobody talks about it. Most of all, he wants his newspaper to be talked about. He’ll put the newsroom ahead of the ludicrous profit margins demanded by Wall Street and the Tribune Co. That’s not to say he wants to lose money, just that he thinks it’s a good investment already (though not if its stock price keeps dropping). What not to expect from Geffen is that he’ll devote every waking minute of his life to the venture. But, at 63, he’s looking for a new challenge. The movie biz, well, that hasn’t excited him for years. Dreamgirls is his last hurrah.

Geffen, Broad or Burkle .?.?. Deal or No Deal?

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