Back in the Biz

By: Jennifer Saba Given the number of billionaires pining to own the Daily Miracle these days, the folks at Neiman Marcus might consider making a newspaper this year's Christmas fantasy gift in its storied catalogue. The list of deep-pocketed men keen on buying newspapers keeps growing ? and chief among them is supermarket mogul Ronald Burkle. Through his Los Angeles-based investment firm The Yucaipa Companies LLC, Burkle reportedly expressed interest in Knight Ridder, the dozen McClatchy cast-offs, Tribune Co. in general, and the Los Angeles Times in particular.

For now, Burkle can't claim the Los Angeles Times. But he did snap up the paper's former publisher, Jeffrey Johnson. In March, Johnson joined his firm as a principal focusing on media acquisitions.

Whether Burkle, who has teamed up with real estate magnate Eli Broad, will eventually take the L.A. Times off the hands of new Tribune owner Sam Zell is anyone's guess. (Yucaipa spokesman Frank Quintero cited a non-disclosure agreement with Tribune limiting the firm's ability to comment.) But regardless of the outcome, Yucaipa gained in Johnson a skilled newspaper insider who knows the nuts and bolts of every operation, from the pressroom to the newsroom.

Upon hiring him, Burkle wrote in an e-mail to E&P, "We are fortunate to have a professional of Jeff's caliber, track record, and experience join our team. We are excited about the future ? and as we continue to look at media opportunities, I am confident that Jeff will bring invaluable expertise to the company."

Johnson, one month into his new gig, calls it "a mix of looking at new opportunities, as well as an involvement in new investments." As E&P went to press in mid-May, Yucaipa announced it bought Primedia ? which publishes 76 speciality magazines including Hot Rod and Surfer ?for $1.2 billion.

Almost anyone you talk with about Johnson, from former co-workers to Los Angeles community leaders, describes him the same way: as a fiercely smart, approachable guy with unmatched integrity. "I tease him about his appearance. He has this 'aw-shucks' farmboy quality to him," jokes Dean Baquet, the L.A. Times' former editor. "He's an extremely decent person ? a real family man, and an operator in the literal sense of the word. He understands every aspect of the newspaper business, and cares about quality."

That commitment to excellence was revealed in a very public way last September, when Johnson and Baquet were quoted in the pages of their own paper denouncing staff reductions imposed by the Tribune Co. Johnson told staff writer James Rainey, "Newspapers can't cut their way into the future. We have to carefully balance economic realities with serving our readers."

Staffers rallied around the pair, but Johnson was forced out on Oct. 5 and David Hiller replaced him as publisher. Baquet was axed a month later.

Immediately after the shake-up, Johnson told the Chicago Tribune's Phil Rosenthal, "I think it's important that publishers stand up to the job at hand. ... It's an important issue, and I think as a company we have to have a lot of open discussion about how do we get into the future, and the best way to do it."

Johnson tells E&P he was taken aback by how much media attention he received for railing against his parent company. "It's not normal to have your disagreement in the newspaper every other day. It was a little surreal," he says. "When I think about it, it was fortunate that things moved along fairly quickly because you don't want that to be a distraction for the paper."

It's unusual for an editor to take such a public stand against corporate cuts. And for a publisher to do so ? well, Halley's Comet comes around about as often. By now, Johnson's stance and what it cost him has made him something of a patron saint of newsrooms. For those who have worked with him during his 22 years in the newspaper industry ? all of it spent at Tribune ? it was only natural that Johnson would stand up against the kind of shortsighted thinking that currently plagues his industry.

From pencils to publisher
Johnson, 47, joined Tribune in 1984 ? one year after it went public ? from financial services company KPMG Peat Marwick LLP. He had graduated from the University of Illinois with an accounting degree, but had no intention of becoming a pencil-pusher: "I thought it was a good base to have," he laughs. "I knew I didn't want to practice it."

After three years, Johnson decided to make the jump to newspapers. "I was attracted to the fact that newspapers are interesting organizations," he says. "Newspapers play in a lot of different disciplines. They've got the editorial side, with the talent and all that goes with that. They have the manufacturing and distribution. They've got both consumer business and business-to-business applications. I thought it was really interesting to go in and learn how those work and try and improve them."

He started at Tribune headquarters in the corporate staff as a "grunt" ? as Johnson puts it ? doing financial and operational reviews.

It didn't take long before Johnson landed an opportunity for hands-on experience in the operations division at the Chicago Tribune. Rick Surkamer, vice president of operations for the Sun-Times Media Group, recalls hiring Johnson in 1986 to fill an opening in the packaging division: "He has a rare combination of anticipation, strategic thinking, and employee people skills. You don't see that package very often. Jeff's strength was avoiding crisis, because he planned and looked forward."

Johnson made an impression by dramatically increasing the number of zones at the paper. The change, he says, "meant a lot more complexity to the manufacturing side ? and I think the advertising folks were even shocked when we said, 'Yes, we will do this.'

"Historically, newspaper operations had back then been somewhat slow to respond to market needs," he adds. "So doing that and engaging people about why we were doing it was very fulfilling."

While at the Chicago Tribune, Johnson worked part-time toward his MBA at the University of Chicago. "Four years. I was slow," he deadpans. "You put in your 60 to 65 hours at work, then you march off to class for three hours, twice a week. That's why you need to do it when you are young."

In 1992, Johnson was selected to serve as vice president/director of operations at the Orlando Sentinel. At that time, the industry was feeling the effects of a recession ? and he had to make some tough decisions.

"We were trying to balance looking for opportunities on the cost side while looking at adding capabilities for the readers and advertisers," he recalls. "At that point, we were still expanding plants, adding color to the presses" ? and looking to reduce costs. "Taking costs out doesn't mean a layoff," he notes. "It could mean negotiating better terms for the suppliers, it can mean process improvement within the plants where you engage people."

But Johnson implemented his share of layoffs too. "I think it's never easy to take an action that is going to cause somebody to lose their job," he says. "It should be difficult and painful ? and if it ever stops being that way, you probably shouldn't be in the business anymore. Having said that, it is a fact of business at times you have to restructure. I think the most important thing you can do is tell people why you are doing it ? why it's important to keep the organization strong. Where you are going to make investments coming out of that, and how the organization is going to take on those challenges."

He put those skills to work in 2000 when Tribune purchased the Times Mirror Co. At $8.3 billion, it was at that time the largest acquisition in newspaper industry history.

Johnson, who for two years had been with Tribune's publishing arm, Landoll Inc. (and was appointed its president and CEO in January 2000), got a call from his friend and former Orlando Sentinel boss John Puerner. Puerner was selected to head up the L.A. Times, and the first person on his list of hires was Johnson, who joined the paper as senior vice president and general manager.

"The reason I did that is I knew we had a lot of work to do in the operations side of the business," Puerner says. "Throughout our working relationship, Jeff always stepped up to the tough things that had to be done and accomplished them in a skillful way."

Tribune had inherited a slew of problems with the L.A. Times, including the well-documented Staples controversy in 1999. Johnson not only had to beef up operations (he oversaw an automated preprint strategy), he also had to help restore the morale of a beleaguered staff. One newspaper executive Johnson tried to hire to come to L.A. recalls that Johnson had to handle all the problems left by the man known to some as "Captain Crunch" ? former Times Mirror CEO Mark Willes.

The pressure grew more intense in Los Angeles. In February 2005 he was named executive vice president (and remained GM). Three months later Puerner retired, and Johnson succeeded him as president, publisher, and CEO. Editor John Carroll, who oversaw the paper's five Pulitzer wins in 2004, quickly followed Puerner out the door. Carroll says he knew Tribune would insist on more reductions ? and left as a result: "When I gave my notice, it was to Jeff. He knew the score."

The former editor calls Johnson "a straight shooter" with a great sense of humor and self-deprecation: "Jeff has always been like an old shoe. Very comfortable and easy to deal with."

Johnson promoted Baquet, then the paper's managing editor, to the editor post. The two, who worked closely for years, had few differences, among them the decision to allow advertising on section fronts. Johnson advocated it, as it was getting harder to turn down advertisers who requested the position. "We had a full-bodied debate about it," Baquet recalls. "When it was all over, he told me his decision" ? the paper would allow ads on certain section fronts ? "and a few days later he reached out to me to see if I was OK."

During the course of his tenure as publisher, Johnson did make several cuts at the L.A. Times but grew weary of the process. He had met with Tribune executives over the paper's role and its vision.

"I think at the end of the day, the one really important issue the Tribune folks and I agreed on is that you need to be aligned," Johnson says. "I completely agree with that. We can disagree on strategy but at the end of the day, I think that creates more problems when you continue to bump into each other."

Tribune issued this statement about Johnson's tenure: "We thank Jeff for the many successes he achieved during his 22-year career with Tribune. We wish Jeff and his family the very best in the years ahead."

When Johnson found himself rallying against further cuts, the outpouring of support he received from the community and beyond moved him. As for most of his peers, he admits, "I was a little radioactive for some publishers to reach out to, and I understand that."

Life after L.A.
After leaving the Times Johnson spent time with his family, caring for his wife ? a former intensive care nurse who had been diagnosed with colon cancer around the time he was ousted ? and their three sons, aged 11, 14, and 17. "We kind of joked about our sense of timing on these things," Johnson told the Chicago Tribune a few days after he left the L.A. Times, and added that physicians were optimistic about her prognosis.

After all that, he still managed to find time to continue serving on the boards of the United Way of Greater Los Angeles and the YMCA of Metropolitan Los Angeles. The latter group's CEO, Larry Rosen, remembers when Johnson joined in 2003. During the orientation for new directors, the organization instructs them to make sure they mention their involvement with the YMCA board during public events. "Everyone usually nods their heads. Jeff took notes, he's so earnest," says Rosen.

When Johnson was named publisher, the L.A. Times ran a story on Page One ? and there was no mention of the YMCA. When Rosen got to his office that morning, there was a message on his machine: It was Johnson apologizing that his affiliation with the Y wasn't included. "It was arguably the biggest day of his professional life," Rosen laughs, "and the first thing he does is apologize."

Johnson also was elected chairman of the United Way board in April, something that CEO/President Elise Buik had been advocating. Johnson first took an interest in the organization when he was still in operations in L.A. Operations people, Buik says, don't tend to be very interested in local neighborhoods, but "when Jeff was behind the scenes, he really took the time and commitment to find out about the community."

She adds, "The amount of change he has gone through in the past year, having to leave a 20-year career and caring for your partner with a life-threatening disease ... he is the real deal."

After more than 20 years in the newspaper business, Johnson is now handling the operations for Yucaipa's current and future media investments. He was involved with the firm's acquisition of Primedia, and says the magazine titles are a good fit with Yucaipa's Source Interlink, one of the country's largest magazine, DVD, and CD distributors.

He's still a newspaper guy at heart, though, and will defend an industry under scrutiny. "I think you have to remember that [newspapers] are really well-established institutions for the most part, and they still have very attractive business models," he says.

Johnson adds that the challenge is for newspapers to progress while the business undergoes transition: "I think that you do have to look about restructuring the business going forward, and you have to develop really important strategies to deliver growth. Then you have to push forward with all your effort.

"I think that is one of the struggles," he says. "How do you do that when you are taking care of that institution and the town you serve? I think everyone would agree ? I think the industry has to try and move faster on new initiatives."

Despite his accomplishments while working in newspapers, he's enjoying doing something different. "I'm very excited to be at Yucaipa," he says. "They have a good track record working with companies that have great brands and great positions but are struggling. I think there is a lot of media space that fits that category ? and I hope to be part of some exciting investments."


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