Tribulations at L.A. Times

Johnson forced to resign post at paper

Los Angeles Times publisher Jeffrey Johnson has been forced to resign his post by the Tribune Co.

Johnson, who with top Times editor Dean Baquet, had protested budget cuts demanded by corporate managers, will be replaced by David Hiller, publisher of the Chicago Tribune.

Fate of Baquet is unclear. Hiller is expected to ask the editor to stay on, but in the Times own coverage of the shakeup, the paper cited “friends of Baquet” in reporting that the editor had not yet decided to do so.

In an unusually insubordinate move, both Johnson and Baquet were quoted in their own paper on Sept. 14 objecting to Tribune management demands for further budget cuts at the Times.

“Newspapers can’t cut their way to the future,” Johnson said then, with Baquet adding, “I am not averse to making cuts. But you can go too far and I don’t plan to do that. I just have a difference of opinion with the owners of Tribune about what the size of the staff should be.”

Neither Baquet nor Johnson responded to requests for comment on Thursday.

Duo also petitioned Tribune’s board at a recent meeting to reconsider the latest round of belt tightening and refused to draw up a new budget plan with cuts aimed to boost the paper’s profits by 7%.

While Tribune execs said Johnson was let go because he wouldn’t carry out their budget orders, Baquet’s continued tenure may depend on whether he’s now willing to change his mind on budget cuts.

Asked by the Associated Press if Baquet would be kept on, Hiller said, “If it turns out that … we want to get to the same place, then we’ll do it together.”

If Baquet were to refuse cut his budget further and leave the paper, it would be nearly identical to the exit of his predecessor, John Carroll, who quit in July 2005 after he refused to implement the Tribune-ordered cuts.

Carroll had been tapped by Tribune to edit the Times shortly after the company acquired Times-Mirror in 2000. One of his first moves was to lure Baquet west from the New York Times, where he had been the national editor.

Shakeup comes as Tribune, which owns newspapers and TV stations, is considering splitting into pieces and selling off assets. The Chicago company hired an investment bank and said it will announce plans by year’s end.

The 125-year-old L.A. Times is considered a prize and has stirred up lots of local interest from the likes of David Geffen, Eli Broad and Ron Burkle. Geffen is said to be particularly keen to buy the paper. They and others feel coverage has suffered at the paper since its purchase by a distant parent company that’s imposed cost cutting and layoffs.

While newspapers continue to throw off lots of cash, they’ve been hard hit by a long slump in advertising and competition from the Internet.

“After a thorough review, Jeff and I agreed that he should resign at this time,” Tribune Publishing president Scott Smith said in a statement.

“We do agree on many priorities …. However, this leadership change is necessary because of important differences on how best to shape our future,” he said.

Johnson had been publisher of the Times since March 2005. He joined the newspaper in May 2000 as senior VP-general manager after holding positions at other Tribune newspapers, its education unit and in the corporate office. He joined the company in 1984.

In an email to the L.A. Times staff, new publisher Hiller said, “I read and love newspapers and have the highest regard for the Los Angeles Times, its great journalism and the special role it plays in Southern California.

“I believe in the future of newspapers as the most trusted source of news and information in the communities we serve. To achieve that future we have to continue to change because our readers, online users and advertising customers continue to change.”

Hiller started at Tribune in 1988 and has been publisher of the Chicago Tribune for the past two years.

Previously, he was president of Tribune Publishing and Tribune Interactive and also served as the parent company’s general counsel.

Before joining Tribune he worked at private law firms and as a special assistant to U.S. Attorney General William French Smith.

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