David Hiller of the ‘L.A.Times’: Beyond ‘Frontline’

On Tuesday, PBS repeated in some cities its recent airing of the episode in the “Frontline” series on the media that focused on the recent troubles at the Los Angeles Times, going back to jobs cuts, the firing of Publisher Jeff Johnson and Editor Dean Baquet, and the current struggle by Tribune to find a new owner.

Along the way, bits and pieces of an interview with David Hiller — sent from Chicago to replace Johnson — appeared, defending Tribune’s moves. But they come from a much longer discussion with host Lowell Bergman.

As E&P has noted several times, more than 50 transcripts of interviews from the program are posted at pbs.org, and we have highlighted many of them over the past month. Here are excerpts from the Hiller interview.


Q. You must have heard that you needed to cut costs, jobs. The editors back in 2004 were resisting.

A. Yeah. I think one of the biggest disservices that’s been done is converting this debate over the future of newspapers into a simple-minded, cuts-versus-no-cuts debate. I know that’s how it got portrayed in the press, including in the pages of newspapers, including our own paper. But that makes it a way too narrow issue. The issue isn’t about jobs and cuts. That’s focused on the wrong thing. The issue is readers, audience, users. Those are the numbers that you’ve got to be focused on. Are we growing? Are we staying important to our readers and users?

Now, along the way, as we change, we’re going to have to reallocate resources; we’re going to have to cut in some areas; we’re going to have to add in other areas. But to get dug in and make this huge issue of the future of newspaper just portrayed as something about the numbers of jobs in the newsroom is a really unfortunate oversimplification. ?

Q. It’s a good business. What’s the financial problem? Why are people being laid off, bought out? Fifty to 75 more reporters next year?

A. Yeah. On that one, we haven’t said or planned or decided any number of buyouts or layoffs for next year. Let me address your bigger question. The issue for the whole newspaper industry — not just the Los Angeles Times — is, what’s the financial trajectory of the business over time? At the present time, here in Los Angeles, we have a lot of revenue, and there is a lot of cash flow, but the question is, is it getting bigger, or is it getting smaller? That’s plainly the concern that the investors have and why Wall Street is being so harsh on newspaper companies at the present time….

Q. Are you beginning to cut into the ability of the Times to compete by cutting jobs?

A. Yeah. Well, I don’t want to sugarcoat it. At some point, you do need to deal with the issue of resources, and I’m glad that [former L.A. Times editor] John Carroll — who’s another friend of mine — I’m glad that John framed it as not cuts versus no cuts, but it’s the issue of how many resources, where are they deployed, how much on the Web, how much in print. That’s a legitimate and right discussion to have. But the way not to have that discussion is to get dug in and dig in one’s heels and say: “Here’s a bright line in the sand. One more job and we’re going to heck in a handbasket, and the age of good journalism is over.” ?

Q. But [former Times publisher Jeff] Johnson says you can’t cut your way into the future. Maybe redeployment is what you need to do, not announcing layoffs? You’re going to lose quality people.

A. It’s certainly the case that you can’t cut forever and feel that that’s a successful surgery for taking it into the future. It can’t be. I don’t suggest that it is; I’m not aware that anybody in the rest of the company is suggesting that it is. I do understand there was a difference of opinion about a particular line in the sand about whether any more cuts on a certain level were acceptable or weren’t acceptable. Frankly, I was disappointed that the conversation turned in a way where people dug in their heels on that, but people get to make their own decisions.

I prefer to look at it in the broader context of, we’ve got an entire business we need to reinvent, to figure out how to do a great job for readers and users. Along the way we need to stay a financially healthy business, and we need to manage on both of those fronts. And that’s what I came out here to do….

Q. The concern is that these cuts will cut into the quality journalism that got you those Pulitzer Prizes.

A. Well, that’s certainly a risk, and that’s certainly what you want to avoid. You don’t want to diminish the journalism. You don’t want to take things away from readers. What you’re trying to do is build up readers and build up online users and do it as smartly as you can. But the other thing you’ve got to do is be realistic about where the business is headed and where advertisers are going. So it’s a balance between maintaining a healthy business and being sure that you’re delivering really outstanding journalism for your readers and users. …

Q. People say the cuts will cut into the quality of the paper, and the transition to the Web will be impossible.

A. Let me say this, and with all due respect, but just listening to you and your questions — which every one seems to be focused on cuts — illustrates to me the problem of this whole discussion. [It’s] that people are trying to turn what should be a very robust conversation about change in the media business to deal with the future into this “cuts versus no cuts.” Like, “less filling, tastes great,” great sound bites, but not very useful, with all due respect; not very useful in thinking about how we take this business forward.

Q. Is the money you’re saving by doing layoffs or buyouts going to go into the Web site?

A. Well, I haven’t done any buyouts or layoffs, but we are — I think we’re going to be moving people; I think we’ll be moving dollars. Also, what we need to do — and this gets a little lost sometimes — is we need to retool basically everything we do in the newspaper so that it works for the Web as well as for print. …

A. One of the biggest things we’re going to be doing is basically transforming our print newsroom so that it’s across every desk, producing news, information and content that can be used across print, online, wireless, video, you name it. We were behind on that. That’s another area where I think over the last several years we could have been doing more. That’s a more interesting and fruitful focus than this issue of, if you pardon my going back to this, this [canard] of cuts versus no cuts. ?

Q. But Mr. Carroll has said it’s not just an issue of cuts; that he wasn’t given the resources he needed.

A. I think John’s selling himself way too short. He had command of all the troops in the newsroom. If there was stuff that could have been done, I’d ask John why it wasn’t done. Why wasn’t it done? And don’t tell me it was because he didn’t have the money. He had the biggest newsroom in the — short of The New York Times. Whatever he did or didn’t do with it was something that was entirely within John’s hands. ?

Q. You’re saying that Jeff Johnson and John Carroll, and later [former L.A. Times Editor] Dean Baquet, had the ability to take resources and rebuild the Web site, do many of the things that you want to do, but they chose not to?

A. I don’t know. I wasn’t here. You’d have to ask them. All I know is they had an enormous amount of resources in the Los Angeles Times. I’ve got an enormous amount of resources in the Los Angeles Times with my colleagues here. That’s what we’re going to be doing. We’re reallocating; we’re rebuilding; we’re growing the Web site. It can be done, but you’ve got to be focused on doing those things that make the changes to take you forward. ?

Q. What will it look like when you finish your redeployment of resources and cuts?

A. The vision at the bottom is, people are going to say, well beyond our 125th birthday this year, that the Los Angeles Times and its Web sites and its related products are the best, most important source of news and information I get in and around and about Southern California; that they’re going to say, the greatest days are still here and ahead of us; that it does a wonderful job of bringing together this sprawling, diverse set of communities that is Los Angeles ?

I think print is probably going to be a smaller part of it. I know the Web is going to be a much bigger part of it. There may well be other products in the marketplace, including products that do a better job than we’re currently doing addressing the Latino community. I think [Hoy, Tribune’s Spanish-language daily paper], is going to be a major presence for the Spanish-speaking Latino audience in the community. There may be additional print products like we’ve done with The Envelope that addresses the entertainment news; Calendar, which is what to do, where to go, plan-your-life thing. …

Q. I’d like to hear about your Web plans. …

A. We’ve learned a lot. We’re 10 years into the Web, so we see a lot of what works and what people like to do, and we’ve got a great opportunity to blend the best of what newspapers do with the best of what the Web does. So in all sorts of areas of our coverage, whether foreign, national, local, we have the opportunity basically to host on the Web a sort of edited conversation, if you will, where we take what we do best in terms of content and use that as the basis for communities of interest focused on all these different areas.

Think of it as a marriage of the best of the Los Angeles Times with the best of MySpace; that you’ll get community and interaction and chat and conversation, but it’s sustained and directed and built up, if you will, off really great, edited content and reporting from the Los Angeles Times.

So you’ll see that, for example, people are very interested in all the great critics and commentary we have in the area of entertainment and what’s going on and movies and the entertainment business, as well as locally where to go, what to do, those sorts of things. That can then be the basis of both content that’s interesting and draws people in on the Web as well as the foundation for a great, spirited community conversation online among all of the users. So you get a combination of great L.A. Times content and user-generated content, and it becomes the gathering place in cyberspace for people who want to know and do anything related to Southern California. …

Q. Does it mean the Times won’t be competing with The Wall Street Journal, etc., on every major story?

A. Oh, I think on the major stories, particularly the ones of most salience here — for example, this is the entertainment capital of the world, so we need to own entertainment, and we’ll do entertainment better than anybody. We do it now, and we’ll continue to.

We’re going to continue to have a major foreign reporting coverage. We’re one of the best at it currently. But one of the things we may emphasize, for example, is the unique role that Los Angeles has as the gateway to the Pacific Rim. That’s a part of the story that’s different here for the West Coast and for Los Angeles than, say, it might be for an East Coast paper.

Q. But you know the concern: The Times has bureaus all over the world. It’s one of the few papers that gathers information that way.

A. Yeah. My plan and expectation is that being a world-class provider of foreign and national news is going to continue to be one of the hallmarks of the L.A. Times.

Q. But with fewer people?

A. Well, I don’t know whether it’s going to be with fewer people or not. There you go again, to say being focused on the numbers of people and not on the quality of the coverage.

Q. But who does coverage? I mean, people do coverage.

A. Well, people do coverage. Yeah, people do coverage.

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