Talent Drain

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For KCRW, I'm Nick Madigan of the Baltimore Sun with Minding the Media.

Things are rocky at the L.A. Times.

Last week, the publisher and the editor publicly announced they would not let any more staff go, in defiance of their bosses at the Tribune Company in Chicago.

It was never a great relationship. In the six years that Tribune has owned The Times, there have been many battles, prompted invariably by Chicago's insistence that The Times trim costs. Last year, about 300 people lost their jobs there, and Tribune wants more to leave.

Tribune has also been strict with its other papers, including Newsday, the Orlando Sentinel and the paper I work for. Here at The Sun, we've lost our foreign bureaus, the news-research department and dozens of staff members.

But the L.A. Times is the big player in Tribune's portfolio. It contributes about a quarter of the roughly $4 billion pulled in by Tribune's publishing unit every year.

In yesterday's Wall Street Journal, reporter Sarah Ellison wrote that the turmoil over the nation's fourth-largest newspaper comes ahead of a meeting on Thursday of the Tribune board, which will hear a plan for the company's 11 newspapers and 26 TV stations.

The plan comes after a bitter public feud with The Times's previous owners, the Chandler family, who retain a stake in the company.

The battle could break up Tribune's assets, which is what happened to the Knight-Ridder newspaper chain earlier this year.

Some powerful Los Angelenos are angling to buy The Times, which could be worth as much as $2 billion.

The Wall Street Journal reported this week that insurance tycoon Eli Broad and supermarket magnate Ron Burkle recently discussed with the Chandler family how they might purchase The Times, and Hollywood mogul David Geffen has made an all-cash offer to buy the paper.

Broad told the Journal that the Times "will be far better off with local ownership."

Other prominent locals, including former Secretary of State Warren Christopher, wrote last week to Tribune CEO Dennis FitzSimons suggesting that different owners "would better serve Los Angeles."

"We have watched with concern," the letter said, "as our newspaper has repeatedly reduced the size of its staff, cut the space given to news, and declined in circulation."

FitzSimons replied that Tribune was spending more on editorial operations than publisher Otis Chandler did during "what many refer to as the 'golden age' of the newspaper."

FitzSimons said that under Tribune, The Times "will continue to be a truly great newspaper."

But its previous editor, John Carroll, who resigned last year after growing exasperated by the staff cuts imposed from Chicago, told the Wall Street Journal that in the six years Tribune has owned the former Times Mirror papers, they have all been "badly diminished."

"It's been a worse talent drain than anywhere I've seen," Carroll said.

Speaking in April to the American Society of Newspaper Editors, Carroll said, "Our corporate superiors regard our beliefs as quaint, wasteful and increasingly tiresome."

"We might see ourselves as public servants, but does the public see us that way?"

It's a good question, especially when trust if fleeting, when many people cherry-pick on the Internet what they want to read and have less and less allegiance to a particular newspaper.

At another Tribune paper, the Hartford Courant in Connecticut, reporter Rinker Buck wrote a letter to Stephen Carver, who will become the paper's publisher at year's end, saying that nobody at Tribune notices the paper's strengths "because they can only measure newspapering in dollars and meeting budgets."

"But heart and soul are the qualities that a newspaper and its readers value," Buck wrote in his letter, published yesterday on the Poynter Institute Web site. "Tribune executives need to get hip, get off the golf links, and get down with some real people to understand this. It's heart and soul that you are selling to your customers."

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



Nick Madigan