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When someone finally says "Enough"

Both oogata and jenni_snake recently posted about the all-too-familiar story of profitable companies cutting jobs (or replacing full-time, benefit-carrying workers with part-time, benefit-less individuals).  The cases they cited took place in Australia and Canada, but it's a familiar complaint here in the U.S. as well.  In fact, there's a developing story right now in Los Angeles, pitting the staff and management of the Los Angeles Times against the newspaper's owner, the Chicago-based Tribune Co.  The article behind the cut was published in the Los Angeles Times business section on Tuesday, Sept. 19th.  A second article, from Thursday's New York Times business section, will follow in a subsequent post.

Laura and Jen, maybe there's hope yet.

(This article, by L.A. Times Staff Writers James Rainey and Thomas S. Mulligan appeared on Sept. 19th.)

The chairman of Tribune Co. defended his stewardship of the Los Angeles Times on Monday, telling community leaders that the Chicago-based media company had made substantial imrpovements at the paper over the last six years.

Dennis J. FitzSimons sent a four-page letter to former Secretary of State Warren Christopher and 19 other prominent Los Angeles figures who backed the newspaper's management last week in opposing further newsroom cutbacks.

The showdown could intensify a board meeting Thursday, when Tribune directors may decide the fate of the company's 11 newspapers and 26 television stations amid pressure from its largest and most disgruntled shareholder to break up the company.

"The board meeting is to talk about the strategic positioning of the company," with a particular focus on demands made by the California-based Chandler family, which sold The Times and other assets to Tribune in 2000, said one person who works closely with Tribune directors.  The board members "will also certainly be asking management to explain what is happening at the Los Angeles Times."

Last week, the publisher and the editor of The Times, Tribune's biggest single operation, went public with their refusal to make additional staff cuts requested by their Chicago bosses.

The defiant stand by Times Publisher Jeffrey M. Johnson and Editor Dean Baquet marked a turning point in Tribune's rocky six-year ownership of the paper - galvanizing many reporters and editors, who saw it as a stand for quality journalism, and raising the hackles of business managers who debated whether the duo could survive at the paper.

The 20 L.A. leaders wrote in a letter to FitzSimons that further staff cuts threatened to remove The Times "from the top ranks of American journalism."

In his response, FitzSimons said the Chicago company was spending a larger share of its revenue on editorial operations than Publisher Otis Chandler did during "what many refer to as the 'golden age' of the newspaper."

He said Tribune's commitment to Los Angeles also was demonstrated by $250 million in capital projects, including expanded presses to print more color pages and an Irwindale production facility to insert preprinted advertising.

FitzSimons also noted that the 13 Pulitzer Prizes won by The Times since the Tribune takeover were more than the company won in the previous 10 years under Times Mirror Co., the paper's former parent company, which was controlled by the Chandlers.

"The Times is, and under Tribune ownership will continue to be, a truly great newspaper," he concluded.

Some executives at The Times immediately rebutted FitzSimons' contentions, noting, for instance, that the editor who was responsible for many of the awards left the paper in protest over staff cuts.

The current imbroglio erupted into the public last week after Baquet was quoted in The Times saying that more staff reductions would do serious damage to the quality of the newspaper.  He was backed by Johnson, who said "newspapers can't cut their way into the future."

The impasse began in late August, when Tribune Publishing President Scott C. Smith flew to Los Angeles for a meeting with Baquet and Johnson to discuss proposed staff cuts.  Both before and during the Aug. 25th meeting, the Times executives declined to present Smith with a list of reductions, people familiar with the session said.

The two sides have not met since then.  Proposed staffing cuts have not been forthcoming from Los Angeles.  But Smith last week played down the disagreement, which he called "part of a dynamic process."

Smith said there had been "excellent progress" in budgeting sessions with The Times but declined to say what he would do if his top managers dug in their heels.  "I have great respect for Jeff and Dean," Smith said.  "And I won't respond to a hypothetical at this time."

Other newspaper industry observers disagreed on how long Smith and FitzSimons would allow the split with their biggest newspaper to go unresolved.

One top Tribune manager said he sympathized with efforts to stave off more job cuts, which have beset an industry that is losing ad revenue to the Internet.  Like many of those interviewed for this story, the manager requested anonymity so as not to upset Tribune managers.

But the Tribune manager added, "How long can you have your biggest subsidiary in a sort of open rebellion?  Especially from Jeff, who was put out there because he is a company loyalist.  You can't have this at a time when thee is so much other instability.

A top executive at a large newspaper chain predicted that Johnson and Baquet would be fired.  "I hope those guys have their career plans well made," the newspaperman said, "because you do not tell Dennis FitSimons and those guys at Tribune you are not going to do something.  If you do, you are going to be on the beach, real soon."

Others within the Times said that the fight with the parent company shouldn't be viewed so simplistically.  Baquet, they noted, is a well-known and respected figure within the journalism community.  He won a Pulitzer Prize as a young investigative reporter (ironically, at the Chicago Tribune) and went on to become national editor of the New York Times.

His predecessor, John Carroll, left The Times in part because he believed that Tribune was cutting too many positions from its largest and most prestigious paper.

"Don't you think the Tribune board should be able to see a pattern here?" said one Times business manager.  "Shouldn't the board take the responsibility to go one step deeper and find out what's really going on at the Los Angeles Times?"

That position has gained wide sympathy within the editorial and business offices of The Times and other Tribune properties.  One executive repeated a complaint heard at several Tribune papers:  "The only thing I hear about is cost cutting and nothing about expanding the business.  The business doesn't have a future if all we are going to do is keep cutting it."

Veteran Los Angeles Times legal affairs reporter Henry Weinstein said he and other journalists at the paper were proud of their editor and publisher for taking a stand.

"People here feel they work for a terrific newspaper but that it's endangered," Weinstein said.  "Why would Tribune want to diminish an asset that contributes so much to the company?"

Another Tribune Co. journalist posted a letter Monday on a journalism website criticizing the company for its "cost center" mentality.  "You can't make money at newspapering ... by positioning the brand as a money-losing operation whose future depends on perpetual budget cutting," Rinker Buck, staff writer at the Hartford Courant in Connecticut, wrote on Poynter Online.

Relations between The Times and Tribune Co. have been tense since the Chicago company bought Times Mirror in 2000.

An editor at another Tribune paper said that Times managers "have found it really hard to take orders and instruction from the operator of a smaller and less accomplished news organization."

A former top news executive for Tribune acknowledged the quality of the Los Angeles paper.  But he added that "there has always been a feeling in Chicago that the place had, in evey single area, at least three people working at a job that could have been done by one or two."

The Times editorial staff stands at about 940, down from its 2001 level of nearly 1,200.  About 870 employees are devoted directly to putting out the newspaper, when adjunct operations are not counted.

Smith has not demanded a specific number of job cuts, but those familiar with the process predict that the paper could eventually be asked to trim dozens of positions.

But Baquet was distressed when Tribune asked for further cuts this year, after The Times dropped about 90 newsroom employees in late 2005.  Tribune had already forced the paper to drop the equivalent of one full page of news a day beginning in May on top of a similar cut in 2004.

The parent company also ordered a $1-million cut over two years in The Times' foreign operations, which has resulted in lost support staff and the shutting of bureaus in Rio de Janeiro, Vienna and Seoul.

FitzSimons noted in his Monday letter to the Los Angeles leaders that The Times still "has the largest editorial staff and budget of any metropolitan newspaper in America without nationwide circulation."

That doesn't change the feelings of many of those inside The Times that the paper cannot meet its obligations to cover the world, nation and a complex region with substantially fewer reporters and editors.

"Dean felt like they were just chipping away and chipping away, and this is as far as it should go," said one senior Times manager who had spoken to the editor.