Modest Ambitions

Hosted by

For KCRW, I'm Nick Madigan of the Baltimore Sun with Minding the Media. It was only a matter of time before Jeff Johnson was to be shown the door as publisher of the Los Angeles Times.

The same guy who was reviled for firing the columnist Robert Scheer a year ago is now being called a hero for standing up to the cost-cutters in Chicago.

In an interview with the Chicago Tribune's Phil Rosenthal published on Sunday, Johnson said he was just acting instinctively when he said he supported a statement by LA Times Editor Dean Baquet that there was only so much weeding out they could do before the paper succumbed to mediocrity.

The trade paper Editor & Publisher said that what is so striking about Johnson's stand-off with Tribune executives was that it played out in public.

Johnson said that because the turmoil at the paper was documented in its own pages, he felt he had little choice.

He said, "I certainly wasn't trying to make a big public story of it."

Johnson, who learned that his wife was diagnosed with cancer shortly before being told he no longer had a job, told the Tribune columnist that, in the troubled world of newspapers, there are still many questions "about how do we get into the future and what's the best way to do it."

In the wake of Johnson's ouster, Times staffers signed yet another petition opposing the proposed cuts and expressing "our regret and disappointment over the dismissal of Jeff Johnson and our total support for Dean in his efforts to convince our new publisher, David Hiller, that we cannot cut our way into the future."

At headquaters in Chicago, Scott Smith, president of Tribune Publishing, said, "Jeff and I agreed that this change is best at this time because Tribune and Times executives need to be aligned on how to shape our future."

In other words, toe the line.

Hiller, the new publisher, sent a memo to LA Times staffers in which he 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..."

Hiller asked Dean Baquet to stay on as editor, but it's anyone guess as to how long that precarious arrangement will last.

If he does end up leaving, Baquet could probably return to the New York Times, where he was the national editor and was well embarked on a management path.

In another Editor & Publisher story, Joe Strupp quoted LA Times staffers who greeted the announcement of Johnson's firing with sadness and concern. Strupp wrote that most took Johnson's forced resignation as a sign that they would make the cuts that are already in the pipeline.

"The mood is pretty grim, as far as I can see," said Bill Nottingham, a city and county bureau editor. If Johnson was removed for taking a stand, "that does not bode well for our paper or our industry."

Robert Salladay, who works in the paper's Sacramento bureau, said the firing was a clear move by Tribune to flex its muscles. "Most people today see this as a very significant shot across the bow from Tribune Company," he said. "People are hoping this doesn't lead to 120 people being laid off. I think the quality of the paper would suffer."

William Rempel, who has spent more than 30 years at the Times, told Strupp that he would give the new publisher the benefit of the doubt, because he "at least has a reputation as someone who is smart and reasonable and has an interest in journalism."

In a column on Sunday in the LA Times, its former editorial page editor, Michael Kinsley, wrote, "Why did Tribune pay $8 billion for the Times-Mirror papers in 2000 if its ambitions were so modest?"

This is Nick Madigan of the Baltimore Sun, Minding the Media on KCRW.



Nick Madigan