Another ‘L.A. Times’ Top Editor Exits — When Will It End?

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By: Joe Strupp

John Carroll, John Puerner, Michael Kinsley, Dean Baquet, Jeff Johnson, Andres Martinez, Jim O’Shea, James Newton, Russ Stanton, David Hiller.

These are the 10 different men, yes 10, who have held the three most important positions at the Los Angeles Times — editor, publisher, and editorial pages editor — in just the past three years.

With this week’s announcement of yet another pending change, that of Newton departing as editorial pages editor — after slightly more than a year at the helm — another name will be tacked on to the list, whoever is chosen in the coming weeks.

Not a great record of continuity, especially for a paper that has a host of other problems, from budget cuts to new ownership to the same advertising and revenue challenges as every other daily paper. But for the Times, one of the mighty dailies of American newspaper history, the changes are even more striking.

It was just four years ago that the paper hit its Pulitzer Prize heights under former editor Carroll, winning five of the coveted journalism awards in one year, its most ever. That success seemed even more praiseworthy given the problems the paper had had in the late 1990s with the Staples Center scandal, in which the paper shared profits from a special Sunday magazine about the new arena with the arena itself.

After that fallout, which included the departure of former editor Michael Parks and former Publisher Kathryn Downing, the Times found new life in 2000 when Tribune Company took over Times Mirror and placed Carroll and Puerner (as publisher) in charge.

With the Chicago-based parent company able to help shake off the Staples Center hangover, the paper flourished, at least for several years. Then the same ad and revenue problems crept in, eventually sparking Carroll to leave in 2005 rather than face budget staff cuts. His replacement, managing editor Baquet, took over in 2005, but lasted only slightly more than a year, being ousted in late 2006. O’Shea, a former top Chicago Tribune editor, took over then but left earlier this year and was replaced by Stanton.

During that same time period, Puerner departed the publisher’s chair in 2005, handing it over to Johnson, who left in 2006. Hiller, who holds the seniority title among the three highest-ranking positions, came in as publisher in 2006 and has since run the show.

As for the editorial pages, Kinsley found almost immediate problems when he instituted a “Wikipedia” approach to editorials in 2005. When that flopped, he found the door, giving the top post to Times veteran Martinez, who was forced out in 2007 after allowing a guest editor with ties to his girlfriend to edit a weekend section. Newton took the reigns about a year ago, but recently announced he was leaving to resume work on a book about Dwight Eisenhower.

Sound confusing? Imagine how it is for those who work at the paper each day.

Okay, so, while Newton’s overall reason for leaving is his book project, his memo to staffers on Tuesday offered some hint as to other reasons:

“The external difficulties these days are known to all of you, and I won?t belabor them here,” he wrote. “Let me say only that it?s clear to me, as it is to everyone, that the paper still has challenges ahead. The publisher and I have discussed those difficulties, and he is entitled to an editorial page editor who shares his vision on how best to confront them. “

It seems confronting such difficulties would be easier if top executives weren’t leaving every year or so.

“Continuity is valuable if you’ve got good people, it is not if you do not,” Carroll told me this week. “They are obviously having trouble with that. You don?t want to be changing editors every year. I hope it will stabilize and start moving in the right direction.”

Hiller did not return calls seeking comment this week.

Throughout all of this there is Sam Zell, the Tribune boss who orchestrated the takeover of the company last year and has since sold Newsday and plans to sell the Chicago Cubs. He has made no secret that he wants a leaner Washington bureau, which the Times shares with other Tribune outlets. So far, he is not hinting at any plans to unload the west coast paper, but who knows if the right deal comes forth.

The last thing the Times’ revolving door at 202 W. First Street likely needs is another change, especially in ownership. Still, the way the paper has been smacked around under Tribune, change might be welcomed.

Either way, it is clear the editor, editorial pages editor, and publisher chairs need to stay still for a while if the paper is going to maintain some journalistic — and business — success. Recent Pulitzer judging has provided some high points, with the Times posting nine finalists and one winner during the past three years.

Circulation saw about a 5% drop in daily numbers, 6% on Sunday, in the last ABC report, while the embarrassing Tupac Shakur story gave the Times a black eye in March. In that story, the paper relied on a false FBI report for a story linking Sean “Puffy” Combs to a past shooting of Shakur. After a short investigation, the paper retracted the story.

Still, the Times’ future is not completely bleak, if certain revenue changes can occur and long-running efforts to revamp both the print and web approaches take hold. But neither will be able to occur if the three top positions are constantly changing. If those in charge want to maintain that necessary leadership security, they have to make sure those put in place are able to run the paper effectively, and are given the time and resources to do so.

“I hope they have not given up on things,” added Carroll. “I am sure they haven’t.”

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