September 21, 2006

It’s High Noon at the LA Times

2000 2006
Editorial Staff at the L.A. Times 1200 940

Cuts in personnel have become a way of life at the LA Times. Since Chicago-based Tribune Co. bought the paper in 2000, the newsroom has shrunk more than 20%, from about 1,200 people to roughly 940. But two weeks ago, when the company asked for another 100-plus in staff reductions, employees of the paper and prominent Los Angeles citizens came back with a simple reply, “No.”

A group of 20 civic leaders wrote a letter to Tribune chair Dennis FitzSimons arguing against further reductions and suggesting “perhaps a different mode of ownership would better serve Los Angeles.” In an extraordinary public statement in their own paper, Times Editor Dean Baquet, joined by publisher Jeffrey Johnson, were quoted flatly disagreeing with Tribune about further cutbacks. “To make substantial reductions would significantly damage the quality of the paper,” Baquet declared.

Both sides are brandishing numbers. Times partisans point out that the paper is still producing an enviable profit margin around 20%. In his response to civic leaders, FitzSimons countered Tribune has made more than $250 million in capital investments in the paper and revenues are lower now than when it bought the Times – the paper's circulation is now about 852,000 compared to a high of 1.2 million in 1990. The situation is compounded by pressure from the Chandler family, which formerly owned the Times and owns a large share of Tribune stock for the company, to sell off the publication. The Tribune shareholder meeting Sept. 21 is a key moment for FitzSimons to make the case he has a persuasive strategic plan for the future.