Jeffrey Johnson, the Los Angeles Times publisher who defied calls by the Tribune Company for staff cuts, was forced out on Thursday as the newspaper’s parent company named David Hiller, publisher of the Chicago Tribune, as Mr Johnson’s replacement.
“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,” said Scott Smith, president of Tribune Publishing, a division of the Tribune Company.
Mr Hiller said he looked forward “to building on the newspaper’s heritage of outstanding journalism as we evolve to meet the needs of our readers, advertisers and the community we serve”.
His position on job cuts was unclear. In a memo to staff, he expressed his confidence in the future of newspapers, but added “to achieve that future we have to continue to change, because our readers, online users and advertising customers continue to change”.
After months of pressure from frustrated shareholders, the Tribune Company last month appointed a special committee to consider strategic alternatives, raising the prospect of a break-up of one of the most influential US media companies.
Wealthy Angelenos such as David Geffen, Ron Burkle and Eli Broad, have made inquiries about acquiring the Los Angeles Times, and private equity groups are understood to have been circling Tribune in recent months.
Dean Baquet, the title’s editor, who led the public opposition to Tribune’s demands for further cuts, met Mr Hiller on Thursday morning. Following that meeting, Mr Baquet told staff that he would try to work with the new publisher but that he had not changed his position on job cuts.
The resistance put up by Mr Baquet and Mr Johnson drew petitions of support from hundreds of editorial staffers at the Times and the Baltimore Sun. It also invigorated a broader debate in the industry, which has come under pressure as readers and advertisers have migrated to the internet. Tribune and other publishers have cut staff to satisfy Wall Street’s demands for profits. Some observers believe such cuts are diminishing quality, and may be to the detriment of the business in the long-term.
“At some point, you cut into the bone,” said one media investor, who was sceptical that cost cuts alone would benefit the industry.
Wall Street forecasts suggest that there will be more pressure on the horizon for newspapers to reign in costs. Lauren Rich Fine, the Merrill Lynch publishing analyst, this week lowered her forecast for newspaper advertising revenues, predicting that they will be flat this year and fall 1.5 per cent in 2007.
“The new publisher, I’m sure, will put in whatever cuts Tribune has requested,” said John Morton, head of Morton Research, a newspaper consultancy.