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Times of Angst

As L.A. Times staffers filed into last week‘s employee briefing, they could see right away there was a new sheriff in town.

There, front and center in Chandler Auditorium, was a mammoth screen with the words ”Tribune Publishing“ on one line and ”Jack Fuller, President“ on the other.

Behind the lettering were side-by-side images of Times Mirror Square and the Chicago Tribune’s gothic tower. Both edifices glowed in what looked like the reflected shimmer of four blazing suns, but the Times building looked comparatively squat and overshadowed.

Or at least that‘s how it seemed, now that Chicago-based Tribune has begun its acquisition of the mighty Times.

At Friday’s gathering, it fell to Jack Fuller himself to soften the blow. Fuller insisted that the Times would continue to be a world-class newspaper, and also that rank-and-file employees need not fear for their jobs or benefits. He stopped well short of making guarantees.

”Nothing takes the place of newspapers informing, holding together and leading communities,“ Fuller told reporters and editors, adding that Tribune operates ”with integrity on the news [and] business side“ and that the company‘s newspapers are ”edited [from] where they are, not from Chicago.“

Fuller was vague on details, deferring answers on such issues as providing health insurance for domestic partners. Tribune doesn’t currently offer such benefits; Times Mirror does -- after employees fought more than five years to get them.

Foreign editor Simon Li challenged Fuller to make a five-year commitment to maintaining the strength and budget of the Times‘ regional and foreign bureaus.

”You don’t want me to make those decisions,“ said Fuller, calling it a matter for local management. ”I don‘t want to make those decisions.“

Such concerns came up repeatedly because the chain’s own flagship paper, the Chicago Tribune, has matched neither the Times‘ resources nor its reputation for covering national and international news. One staffer noted that retired Tribune editor Jim Squires had suggested that the Times would have to give up its delusions of grandeur. The staffer wanted to know: ”Which, if any, of our journalistic ambitions do you consider delusional?“

”Jim has always had a way with words,“ responded Fuller, who worked under Squires and later succeeded him as Chicago Tribune editor. ”I don’t think it‘s a delusion to think you could cover the world in Los Angeles. I don’t know what Jim was thinking about.“

Ironically, Fuller, 53, was a respected editor -- he won a Pulitzer Prize for editorial writing in 1986 -- in the newsroom that inspired Squires‘ 1993 book, Read All About It! The Corporate Takeover of America’s Newspapers. Squires‘ book chronicled the transition of newspapers from imperfect community oracles to profit-churning corporate assets, and these days, Fuller, as a top Tribune executive, helps guide one of the more well-regarded and techno-savvy media conglomerates. It’s also a company that fits the mold of the penny-squeezing, stockholder-serving, modern corporate breed: Tribune churned a rate of profits 60 percent higher than Times Mirror last year.

”The things you‘re worried about the most . . . [are] not what we’re thinking about,“ said Fuller. ”Layoffs are not in my mind . . . We don‘t contemplate anything of that sort.“

He does, however, have to mull the futures of incumbent publisher Kathryn M. Downing and editor in chief Michael Parks. Both saw their reputations plummet last fall following revelations that the paper had published a special Sunday magazine devoted to the Staples Center, then split the advertising revenue with the arena’s owners.

In years past, Parks was an award-winning foreign correspondent, an upside Parks subtly put Fuller in mind of, noting that he‘d met Fuller once before, in Indochina in 1970, when Fuller was an enlisted soldier. Fuller didn’t recall the encounter, but remarked graciously that ”I‘m sure the first meeting was delightful.“

Parks also gushed that Fuller was ”a copy boy who made good“ and that the Tribune executive is ”someone else who talks about our social mission.“

Publisher Downing didn’t join the banter, but the change in her mien spoke volumes. Just four days earlier, she‘d presided over an employees’ meeting in this same room dressed all in black, looking very much like the well-heeled cousin who‘d just composed herself in the powder room after crying over the corpse. Unlike Parks, Downing had no background in journalism and was not widely respected among reporters and editors. Yet at this earlier meeting she roused friendly applause when she insisted that, as long as she had something to do with it, ”We’re going to do great journalism . . . We‘re going to run this paper.“ And she sounded almost heroic, in a King Lear sort of way, when she calmly insisted, ”I’m publisher of the Los Angeles Times.“

On Friday, her mourning garb had given way to a smart, tan-checked ensemble that included a scarf draped at a jaunty angle. And suddenly she was all smiles.

Downing was no doubt listening closely as Fuller explained that his chosen publisher would be confident, intelligent and professional and care passionately about good journalism. ”I‘ve heard Kathryn talk,“ Fuller said. ”I believe she fits this . . . I’m not trying to suggest otherwise.“

The man who had hired Downing and Parks was nowhere to be seen. Times Mirror CEO Mark Willes, another executive without newspaper experience, was cut out of the merger with the high-tech Tribune after having first opposed it.

”Willes don‘t surf,“ noted a printout taped to a newsroom wall. Under it, in blue grease pencil, someone added, ”But now he has time to learn.“


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