Tribune Co.’s Los Angeles Times is in for its third publisher in less than two years following Monday’s ouster of David Hiller.
Hiller’s departure as publisher and CEO had been widely speculated during the past few weeks as the L.A. Times girds for the layoffs of 250 staffers, including 150 from the newsroom, which also began Monday (Daily Variety, July 14).
Hiller was called to Chicago for a meeting Monday with Tribune CEO Sam Zell, while Zell’s No. 2, Randy Michaels, and Tribune chief administrative officer Gerald Spector were in Los Angeles to break the news to the paper’s staff.
As if that wasn’t enough drama for one morning, the editor of the Chicago Tribune, Ann Marie Lipinski, also announced her resignation with a memo to her staff. Tribune tapped a company vet, Gerould Kern , as her successor.
Michaels told L.A. Times’ staffers in an email that they are in the midst of a search for a replacement for Hiller and hope to have someone in place by the end of the summer. In the interim, Michaels and Spector will oversee the Times’ business operations.
There’s been speculation that the job may go to Timothy Ryan, publisher of the Tribune-owned Baltimore Sun. It’s also understood Tribune brass is considering a nontraditional candidate for the job, former DirecTV chief Eddy Hartenstein.
Hiller had been at the helm of the L.A. Times since October 2006. He was brought in after holding the same post at the Chicago Tribune for two years. His predecessor at the Times, Jeffrey Johnson, was asked to resign after he balked at making budget and staff cuts sought by the previous Tribune regime. Insiders said one reason given for Hiller’s axing was that he didn’t go far enough in ordering budget cuts at the paper. There were worries in the newsroom that there may be still more staff cuts to come, beyond the 150 already specified.
Hiller, known as an affable and easygoing exec, was candid about the situation in a note to staffers that reflected his generally cheery disposition.
“When I told my mother that Sam wanted to see me this morning, she said, ‘Do you think he wants to make you CEO of the whole company?’ You see where a lot of my optimism comes from,” Hiller wrote. “By now you have also heard that Sam had other ideas and I will be leaving the Times. Sam’s the boss and he gets to pick his own quarterback.”
Tribune has been struggling with declining revenue at its flagship newspapers and a heavy debt load since it was taken private in a complex employee-ownership transaction by Chi-based real estate mogul Zell. Zell and his lieutenants have shaken up the media world with their outspokenness about what’s ailing Tribune’s newspapers and what they see as remedies for declining readership and revenue at newspapers in general.
“During the last six months, he has helped the Times begin making the transition to new ownership, facing new realities. Part of that transition must now include a new publisher,” Michaels said in a memo to L.A. Times staffers.
L.A. Times editor Russ Stanton, who was appointed in February after his predecessor James O’Shea also left over budgetary disputes, expressed gratitude to Hiller in a statement on his departure.
“David’s tenure here was marked by unprecedented financial challenges and economic instability,” Stanton said. “He was extremely supportive of our efforts to restructure our newsrooms for the long term, and he provided us with the resources that led to the enormous growth in readership of latimes.com.”
Stanton also addressed the grim mood in the Times newsroom this week as execs begin handing out pinkslips to staffers. The layoffs are part of the broader cost-slashing mandate that has brought budget and staff cuts to virtually every Tribune division.
“The days and weeks ahead will be difficult ones, filled with pain, anger and sadness,” Stanton wrote in an email to staffers. “All of us need to respect the feelings of those who are leaving us, and the editors who are being asked to handle duties they did not seek.”
Times staffers will receive one week of severance pay for every six months of service, or a maximum of one year of severance coin. Stanton told staffers most of the cuts will be made by the end of this week, and all will be completed by Aug. 29.