NERVOUS IN THE NEWSROOMS

By: Lucia Moses with Joel Davis, Joe Strupp

A Look At Tribune-Times Mirror Deal



An excerpt from Editor & Publisher’s special March 20 report on the
World’s Greatest Newspaper Deal



The merger of the Tribune and Times Mirror companies weds two of the
most powerful brands in U.S. newspapers, but many observers wonder what
this portends for the quality of their work. ‘In general, mergers have
not produced better journalism,’ Ben Bagdikian, retired dean of
journalism at the University of California at Berkeley and author of
‘The Media Monopoly,’ told Editor & Publisher following announcement of
the deal.



‘Both companies are large, both are publicly traded, and Wall Street
has increased pressure on newspapers to produce higher levels of
profit,’ Bagdikian pointed out. The merger, he warned, may increase the
heat on the partners to reduce spending on local news, which is
expensive to produce. Companies sometimes set lower standards for their
nonflagship papers, which often serve only as profit centers, he added.



Some Times Mirror staffers wonder how the merger will impact
management, benefits, and staffing levels. ‘People are certainly
worried, but management has been saying,’Wait and see what it is all
about’ and most people are willing to do that,’ said Jack Robinson,
assistant city editor at the Los Angeles Times Orange County edition.
‘But the era of family ownership is coming to an end, and people are
worried about that.’



But some top Times Mirror executives seem more sanguine about the move.
‘Tribune Company and their best papers do Pulitzer-quality work, and to
me that’s a good sign,’ said William Marimow, managing editor at The
Sun in Baltimore.



Tribune executives, indeed, pledge that they don’t anticipate cutting
staff, content-sharing, or closing bureaus at the Times Mirror papers.



Jack Fuller, who heads the Tribune Co.’s publishing division, said the
company doesn’t take a ‘cookie-cutter’ approach toward its papers, but
said it expects to improve Times Mirror’s margins through operational
efficiencies and combined purchasing power in newsprint and other
areas.



Certainly, a newspaper company looking for a partner could do a lot
worse than Tribune. While its EBIDTA margin (30.8% in 1999) has lagged
behind some of its peers in recent years, the Tribune newspaper group
outperforms Times Mirror, whose margin was 23.6% in 1999. Despite
having above-average profit margins, Tribune is known for the strength
and integrity of its news content. Its papers have a reputation for
local autonomy, and Fuller is a Pulitzer Prize winner with a reputation
for commitment to quality journalism.



Asked about the Staples Center affair, which caused so much controversy
for the L.A. Times last year, Fuller said: ‘We try to run [our
newspapers] in such a way that editors of our news know everything
that’s going on. Then, in the end on editorial matters, the editors
decide.’



Chandler family jewel becomes Tribune’s



The new jewel in Tribune’s crown, of course, is Times Mirror’s L.A.
Times, the nation’s fourth-largest daily with a circulation of
1,078,000. It contributes about half of the Times Mirror newspaper cash
flow. Times Mirror also operates six East Coast dailies, and two
community dailies in California, the Daily Pilot in Orange County and
Glendale News-Press. Altogether, the group has racked up 55 Pulitzer
Prizes.



The publishing group has performed well financially, too. Overall, the
group posted a 10.5% operating profit gain in 1999, due largely to
macroeconomic factors: lower newsprint prices and a heated national ad
spending climate, which doesn’t look to cool down anytime soon. The
East Coast group led in 1999 ad revenue gains, up 8.3%, with the L.A.
Times up 6.6%.



With 23 Pulitzers, the L.A. Times became one of the nation’s top
newspapers under former Publisher Otis Chandler, who ran the paper
during the 1960s and ’70s. But the past five-year period under CEO Mark
H. Willes has been a roller-coaster ride.



Willes cut 700 jobs at the L.A. Times when he took over in 1995, and
smashed down walls separating the news and business sides, which many
said hurt the quality of the paper. In an effort to wrap its arms
around Los Angeles’ sprawling territory and splintered readership, the
paper expanded its Latino coverage and rolled out a series of community
news sections, with limited success: circulation is up 1.5% from five
years ago.



Last year, morale was shaken by the ill-fated Staples Center profit-

sharing deal, but the paper remains one of the best in the industry,
distinguished by its foreign coverage. Later this year, it expects to
unveil a redesign by Roger Black.



Long Island, N.Y., Newsday, with 16 Pulitzer Prizes, was founded in
1940 and bought by Times Mirror in 1970. Newsday claims to have the
highest household penetration rate of all U.S. major metro dailies and
is known for strong local and enterprising reporting in suburban New
York City. Since its city edition was folded, daily circulation has
slipped slightly to 575,000.



Baltimore’s Sun, winner of 14 Pulitzer Prizes, also is noted for its
strong community and investigative reporting as well as its ability to
compete in The Washington Post’s backyard. Founded in 1837, it was
bought by Times Mirror in 1986. In 1995, the parent company folded the
Sun’s shrinking evening edition and daily circulation jumped from
248,000 to 339,000, but has since slumped to 315,000. Cost-cutting also
forced the paper to close three of eight bureaus in the mid-1990s.



Founded in 1764, The Hartford (Conn.) Courant bills itself as the
oldest continuously published paper in America. Connecticut’s largest
daily, the Courant was bought by Times Mirror in 1979 and has won two
Pulitzers, most recently in 1999. Daily circulation is 207,500, down
8.4% in the past five years. The paper bought a group of five area
alternative weeklies in 1999 in a bid to expand its marketing reach.



Times Mirror also owns two small papers on Connecticut’s affluent Gold
Coast, The Stamford Advocate and Greenwich Time, which it acquired in
1977. Combined daily circulation is 41,000.



Finally, the 116-year-old, Allentown-based Morning Call, which Times
Mirror bought in 1984, covers an eight-county region in eastern
Pennsylvania and is the dominant paper in its primary market, with
daily circulation at 126,500, down 2.3% in the past five years.



Tribune’s strong new-media strategy



Along with other missteps, Times Mirror has been criticized for not
having a new-media plan. It was spending $25 million a year on its
newspaper Web sites in 1998, according to its 1998 annual report, and
has partnered with other newspaper companies to form Classified
Ventures, CareerPath.com, and other Web sites, but hasn’t spent as
lavishly as its competitors to develop a Web presence. Willes has
downplayed the Internet’s threat to traditional advertising media.



The Tribune Co., meanwhile, was an early and aggressive player online.
It’s also known for giving its newspapers plenty of autonomy. In
addition to the Chicago Tribune, the company owns The Orlando (Fla.)
Sentinel, daily circulation 252,500; the Fort Lauderdale, Fla., Sun-

Sentinel, daily circulation 242,000; and the Newport News, Va., Daily
Press, daily circulation 97,000. The Orlando Sentinel and the Sun-

Sentinel distinguish themselves in sports coverage and are growing in
circulation.



The Chicago Tribune, daily circulation 578,700, manages to be a strong
local paper in a big urban area. It has a reputation for international
coverage, although it has been shifting its resources toward covering
local news.



Despite assurances from the top, doubts linger about the Tribune
takeover bid. One Baltimore Sun news staffer, who spoke on condition of
anonymity, said colleagues are concerned about losing benefits and
editorial quality. ‘The L.A. Times, us, and the Chicago Tribune all
have foreign bureaus. Are they going to say we only need one person for
all these papers?’ the staffer wondered. Such concerns may not be
unfounded. The Tribune has cut its bureaus and shares resources with
its sister papers, while the Florida papers share stories and a bureau
in Puerto Rico, for example.



But L. John Hale, editor of Tribune’s Orlando Sentinel, called it a
‘win-win situation. I think staff finds it a reassuring commitment to
journalism.’ And Kathy Waltz, publisher of Tribune’s Daily Press, said
Times Mirror staffers at the newly acquired company need not worry
about what will happen to the quality of their papers: ‘If you care
about the role newspapers play in society,’ she added, ‘you’ve got to
be excited about this move.’



~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~



Lucia Moses (lmoses@editorandpublisher.com) is an associate editor
for Editor & Publisher magazine.









(c) Copyright 2000, Editor & Publisher

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