- The Washington Times - Thursday, October 5, 2006

CHICAGO (AP) — The Tribune Co. ousted Jeffrey M. Johnson, the publisher of its largest newspaper, the Los Angeles Times, yesterday after he refused to make what he considered potentially damaging staff cuts ordered by the media conglomerate.

The parent company named David D. Hiller, who has been publisher of the Chicago Tribune, to succeed Mr. Johnson.

The move follows a highly publicized show of defiance last month by Mr. Johnson and Times Editor Dean Baquet against the latest proposed Tribune Co. cuts, which drew the ire of not only Times staffers but those at some of the Tribune Co.’s 10 other daily newspapers.

Scott Smith, president of the Tribune Co.’s publishing division in charge of the newspapers, said he and Mr. Johnson had agreed on the change “because Tribune and Times executives need to be aligned on how to shape our future.”

But it was not clear whether the action means the Tribune Co., which plans major restructuring actions by the end of the year, is determined to keep the paper or put Mr. Hiller in place to slash costs and make it more attractive in a sale.

Tribune Co. spokesman Gary Weitman declined comment beyond a prepared statement and did not immediately make Mr. Smith or Mr. Hiller available. Mr. Johnson did not respond to an interview request, and Times spokesman David Garcia did not return a phone call seeking comment.

In a Web-posted story, the Times reported that the Tribune Co. had asked Mr. Johnson to resign and that Mr. Hiller was expected to ask Mr. Baquet to stay, despite the editor’s own protests against further job cuts.

Both Mr. Smith and Mr. Hiller went out of their way to underscore a commitment to top-quality journalism at the Times in separate memos to Times staffers.

“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,” Mr. Hiller wrote.

But the furor isn’t likely to go away unless the Tribune Co. backpedals on demands to further trim costs at the Times, with its other holdings.

A group of Los Angeles civic leaders already demanded in a letter to Tribune Co. directors last month that the company put more money into the nation’s fourth-largest newspaper or sell it in the wake of the newest proposal to cut costs. The paper has eliminated 200 editorial positions in the past five years.

John Morton, an independent newspaper-industry analyst in Silver Spring, Md., called Mr. Johnson’s ouster predictable and said it probably doesn’t have any bearing on whether the Tribune Co. will change its mind and decide to sell the Times.

“When an executive refuses to do what his bosses tell him to do, there are consequences, and the consequences are that he’s lost his job and his career at Tribune Company,” said Mr. Morton, who said he thinks further cuts are likely. “This is strictly a management discipline question.”

Tribune announced Sept. 21 that it would study the sale or breakup of the corporation, which owns the Chicago Tribune, Baltimore Sun, Chicago Cubs, cable superstation WGN and other TV stations and newspapers. The Tribune Co. board is expected to decide on a course by year’s end.

Chief Executive Officer Dennis FitzSimons has said plans would not include selling the Times, but he also has pledged to do what’s best for shareholders and said “everything is on the table.”

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