By SARA FISHER

Staff Reporter

One more time, it's musical chairs at the Los Angeles Times and one more time, a relative neophyte is taking the helm of the nation's fourth-largest newspaper.

Kathryn Downing was named publisher of the Times last Thursday, marking the third person to occupy the paper's top slot in less than two years.

Previous Publisher Mark Willes, also a newcomer to newspapers when he appointed himself publisher in 1997, stepped down in order to dedicate his full attention to his role as chairman, chief executive and president of parent company Times Mirror Co.

Downing has exactly 14 months of experience in the newspaper industry, a point brought up during a press conference last week. Her response? To profess a newfound appreciation of journalism.

"I have fallen in love with the newspaper," she said. "It made me wonder why I waited my whole life (before entering) this industry."

There are some who might wish she waited a little longer. Her ascension, along with a steady stream of corporate departures in recent months and a series of controversial reorganizations involving the news and advertising departments, have left the paper in a kind of ongoing flux.

A recent New York Times story was especially downbeat about the efforts of the newspaper and of Times Mirror. Several managers who left told the New York Times that "management operated in a helter-skelter, ad hoc manner, with serial strategies that produced one exhausting experiment after another."

Willes brought Downing on board as president and chief executive of the Times a little over a year ago. At the time, her appointment drew some criticism from newspaper veterans given that her background was primarily in legal publishing.

Downing had formerly headed the Mosby Matthew Bender medical and legal publishing unit before Times Mirror divested it, and had been president and chief executive for a Thomas Legal Publishing Co. division.

With her promotion, she again faces the ire of many within the journalism community both inside and outside the Times.

"Prior to Willes, the Times used to hire experienced people to head up all its divisions," said one former L.A. Times executive. "Now they have the philosophy of hiring people outside of the newspaper industry, who walk in off the street and treat it like any other industry, and their analysis of the paper's problems is simply wrong."

During last week's press conference, the stated purpose of which was to deliver a message of continuity, Downing made no effort to appease the naysayers.

She actually one-upped Willes by promising to increase the Times' circulation by 1 million, effectively doubling its current readership. To achieve that increase, as well as boost net earnings, Downing said the paper would focus on rolling out more "Our Times" publications (highly localized supplements featuring neighborhood news), and increase cross-promotions with foreign-language papers La Opinion and Korea Times.

The 1 million-circulation-gain goal, for which she attached no timeline, is bound to draw even greater skepticism than Willes' previous goal to boost circulation by 500,000.

"The only way they can do that is by giving papers away, which will greatly reduce its value to advertisers," said Bryce Nelson, chairman of graduate journalism studies at USC.

A former Times executive was more blunt in his assessment.

"It's so stupid. You would have thought she learned her lesson from Willes. Not only will this make her the laughingstock of the industry, it's an insult to prior publishers," the former executive said.

Since Willes joined Times Mirror, circulation has only grown by about 40,000 and most of that growth came after the paper cut its weekday newsstand price in half.

Downing takes over the paper at a time of financial uncertainty. The L.A. Times has taken a beating despite repeated recent attempts to radically restructure the paper. The Times Mirror annual report referred to the L.A. Times' "sluggish advertising revenues and higher expense levels related to ongoing growth initiatives."

The Times was the primarily culprit for Times Mirror's newspaper publishing segment suffering a drop in profit margins to 17.9 percent in 1998, from 19.3 percent a year earlier.

After five successive declines in quarterly operating profit, the Times expects to report an operating profit increase for the second quarter ending June 30, Willes said.

"When it comes to his various business plan experiments, Willes had done a credible job for the last couple years, but the real question is whether he can continue to do so as the company moves forward," said Kendrick Noble, an independent equity analyst.

As for Downing, expect more experimentation. Last week she expressed support for continuing the Times' effort to coordinate the marketing and editorial departments' activities to generate more ad revenue.

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