By: Mark Fitzgerald
In the years since the outsized Col. Robert R. McCormick ended his nearly four-decade-long reign as editor, publisher, and undisputed master of the Chicago Tribune, the newspaper’s publishers — whatever their personality — have mostly remained nearly anonymous to the great numbers of Chicagoans who don’t go to charity balls or sit on the boards of civic groups.
But in the short 22 months that David D. Hiller has been at the Chicago Tribune, he’s become familiar face not only at the city’s many media panel discussions and the like — but to Trib readers, as well, through regular publisher’s letters.
He made the call to allow advertising on section fronts — and took the heat for moving the popular full-page weather package from a section-back to an inside page.
Now Hiller is taking his act to the biggest stage yet as president, publisher, and CEO of what is arguably the most troubled property at a Tribune Co. that has recently been shaken to its roots: the Los Angeles Times.
Like many who have ascended in recent years into Tribune’s C-level suites, Hiller did not come up through the newsroom. He joined Tribune in 1988 as vice president/general counsel. “I’m a recovering lawyer,” he said with a laugh, during an interview with E&P conducted for this month’s cover story package.
What may be most notable about Hiller’s appointment — and what it might signal for his likely future rise at whatever emerges from the Chicago media company’s strategic evaluation — is that he is among the first executives reaching the top rungs at Tribune who brings extensive experience in interactive media, the certain future of news companies.
Hiller was president of Tribune Interactive from 2000 to 2004, taking over just as the Internet bubble reached its bursting point. He grew the Chicago Tribune’s metromix.com at a time when non-newspaper rivals were giving up on online city guides, and took the brand national. He was a director on the boards of Tribune’s most important online initiatives and partnerships, including CareerBuilder and Classified Ventures.
Even before that, as senior vice president/development from 1993 to 2000, he was finding the new-venture opportunities greenlighted by publishers Charles Brumback and John Madigan.
While Hiller was still overseeing the interactive unit, he was given the additional title of senior vice president of Tribune Publishing, which included overseeing The Sun in Baltimore and The Hartford Courant — two properties whose ownership could well change when the independent Tribune board members finish their evaluation of “shareholder value-creation alternatives” by the end of this year.
“David Hiller is the best media executive to lead the Times as it continues to innovate to serve the changing needs of its customers,” Tribune Publishing President Scott Smith said today in a statement announcing that Hiller was replacing Times Publisher Jeff Johnson, who was forced to resign.
At the Tribune, Hiller has both wielded the axe and placed big bets on print.
Last December, the paper laid off about 100 people, and this Labor Day weekend completed another round of cuts that eliminated 120 jobs.
Hiller recently expanded the free distribution of its youth/commuter tabloid RedEye by 50% to 150,000 copies.
At the core daily product, he reinvigorated the Subscriber Advantage loyalty program, which last year went over the 100,000-subscriber mark. The Chicago Tribune has also committed to buy more packaging equipment.
In the last year, Hiller has hinted at other changes, and pointedly did not dismiss out of hand the possibility of going tabloid.
Hiller joined Tribune from the Chicago law firm of Sidley & Austin. He worked at the U.S. Department of Justice early in his career, and clerked for Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart.