Photo by Debra DiPaolo

Eyes were riveted on Chicago in March when the Tribune Co. announced its $6.38 billion acquisition of the Los Angeles Times. What would the Times — which aspired to be a national giant — become if remade in the image of the Chicago Tribune, a strong regional paper and the flagship of a Tribune chain that the Times brain trust had always regarded as inferior?

For the answer, perhaps the place to gaze toward is not windy Chicago, but sunny Florida. That’s where Tribune operates the Orlando Sentinel, a respectable paper, but one that plays second fiddle in the Tribune chain, a position in which the Times also may find itself.

As if to underscore the paradigm shift, the new publisher of the Times is John Puerner, who comes over from — you guessed it — the Orlando Sentinel. But Puerner, who took the helm this week, insisted that the new world order is to be welcomed, not feared. For one thing, Chicago will not call the shots for L.A.

“There are no plays coming in from the sidelines,” Puerner told a companywide meeting of Times employees on Monday. In Orlando, he said, no outsiders ever questioned editors’ local-news judgment or dictated editorial policy. “In effect, if you do well you are left alone.”

What “doing well” means from Puerner’s viewpoint remains to be seen. It certainly includes pushing profit margins higher, a notion that Times employees will view with unease until and unless Tribune gets there without cutbacks to the Times’ news-gathering operation. Already, the local corporate headquarters has been lopped off — with Tribune executives poised to take over. Consolidations (read: layoffs) are anticipated in human resources, purchasing and payroll.

Puerner’s presentation took place in Chandler Auditorium before a standing-room-only crowd of about 400; other employees watched via TV monitors. He was among a triumvirate of new executives on display, including Tribune Publishing president Jack Fuller and new Times editor in chief John Carroll, who moves over from the Baltimore Sun, a Times Mirror subsidiary that also will join the Tribune chain.

Fuller, who acted as MC, took pains to note that Puerner’s love for journalism spawned as early as college, and that Puerner had pursued an MBA specifically to work in newspapers. Puerner followed up, confirming that it was indeed as early as his college years that he first took “our journalistic and societal mission very seriously . . . It’s what drew me to the profession,” he added. “I wanted to be involved in an endeavor that made a difference.”

College aspirations rarely command such emphasis during the introduction of a 48-year-old CEO, but the Tribune execs were eager to draw a distinction between Puerner’s background and that of Times Mirror CEO Mark Willes, who prepped for journalism by cutting costs at cereal factories, and Kathryn Downing, Willes’ hand-picked publisher, who admitted that she might benefit from taking a course in journalism.

Puerner also distanced himself from Willes’ oft-ridiculed plan to double the paper’s circulation, implying that recent circulation gains were smoke and mirrors. “You sell [papers] to everyone who wants to buy them,” he said. “But you don’t pay people to take them.” Home deliveries have suffered from a slightly worrisome “downward trend,” he added, and if the paper continued to focus on selling newspapers alone, “our business will attrit over time.” The real path to a profitable future, he said, involves multimedia and broadband, with the goal of providing news, information and entertainment whenever and however consumers want it — “as long as we get something for it.”

Puerner also made a veiled reference to last fall’s Staples Center scandal, in which Times management violated ethical standards by devoting an entire Sunday magazine to the new arena, then splitting profits from the issue with the arena’s owners. “Editorial integrity comes before everything else,” said Puerner. “All of us have faced dilemmas like this in the past, and we know how to handle them.”

New editor Carroll opened his remarks by recalling barhopping in Orange County while covering Richard Nixon — and though Carroll said he’s often been to Southern California, “This is the first time anyone has invited me to stay.” He also talked about honor and professional standards. “The bedrock of good journalism resides in the newspaper,” he said. “I’m betting that out-of-town ownership is not the end of the world.”

The 58-year-old Carroll, a widely respected editor, won points with staff too when he articulated the need for strong regional and foreign bureaus; however, neither Puerner nor Tribune Publishing head Fuller leapt up to second this emotion.

All told, Carroll displayed the sort of humane outlook and cutting-edge, self-deprecating wit that reporters like to see in their editors. At first blush, his demeanor recalls renowned Philadelphia Inquirer editor Gene Roberts, for whom Carroll once worked. He’s a palpable departure from former editor Shelby Coffey III, who delivered fine set speeches and cut a dashing figure at industry events, but rambled in the face of a tough question and never seemed to get the jokes. Michael Parks, Coffey’s prim successor, was the star-quality reporter that Coffey never was — he’d won a Pulitzer Prize as a foreign correspondent. But managing the paper in Los Angeles always seemed a little, well, foreign for him — and to the rank and file he never seemed like a guy to trade quick barbs with over shots of scotch at the Redwood.

At an earlier companywide meeting, both Parks and then-publisher Downing had gushed over Tribune’s Fuller and their apparent joy at joining the new “team.” But both had joined Willes on the sidelines by the time of this week’s conclave.

“It was like the three wise men replacing the Three Stooges,” commented one editor, who immediately registered remorse for grouping Parks, a longtime Times staffer, with Willes and Downing.

As a parting gift, Willes and Downing distributed autographed posters of the Times building framed at night against the L.A. skyline. Parks, though free to cut out Friday, worked through the weekend overseeing the paper’s coverage of the breaking Elian Gonzalez story. And, then, at 9 a.m. Monday, he officially signed off via e-mail: “Thanks, everyone, for a lot of great journalism and many wonderful friendships. Parks.”

Parks had already said his in-person goodbyes Friday during a few afternoon rounds at the Redwood — the local haunt long frequented by Times news hounds. At that moment, as Parks talked of his sadness at not staying around to accomplish more, he seemed like a colleague to share scotch with after all.

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