John Puerner was named publisher of the Los Angeles Times in April after the Tribune Co., owner of the Chicago Tribune and other media outlets, bought the Times Mirror Co. in an $8 billion deal.
Puerner, the 10th publisher of the Times, had two obstacles to overcome. One was to shed the reputation left behind by one of his predecessors, Mark Willes. The other was to revitalize a newspaper staff demoralized by last year's Staples Center brouhaha. The Times made national headlines when it published a Sunday magazine on the new arena and then shared the advertising profits with the center.
Puerner came to the Times from the Orlando Sentinel, a Tribune-owned newspaper in Florida whose average daily circulation is 258,580. The Times daily circulation is 1.1 million. Before that, the 48-year-old publisher was director of marketing and advertising for the Chicago Tribune.
Inside his large, uncluttered office, pictures of his family line the bookshelves by his desk. A bank of photos from his annual helicopter skiing adventures adorns a wall. A large television tuned in to a news channel dominates one corner. On a recent afternoon, he shared his initial impressions of L.A. and the Times.
Question: What have the challenges been these first months?
Answer: I spent a lot of time learning the community and developing a better understanding of this very complex market. It is not new territory for me and the company because we have been doing business out here for a very long time. At one point we owned the Los Angeles Daily News and we sold it after we bought KTLA-TV in 1985. So I have an understanding of the market, but I have been spending a lot of time developing a more in-depth perspective.
We have reorganized the paper into a more functional structure. We moved away from a regional organization and more toward one that is organized around traditional newspaper functions, such as circulation, advertising and editorial.
My view was that some of the roles in the company were not well defined and I wanted to create more accountability around the key initiative I know we have to execute going forward.
The circulation strategy is probably the most important. (Times Editor) John Carroll and I have had a lot of conversations about what we do best and we want to build on that. So we have been fine-tuning our focus. That is one reason we decided to discontinue the Our Times editions.
Q: When did you find out you were going to be named publisher?
A: I was part of the group that came out of the negotiating team around the time of the transaction, but there was no understanding that I would be publisher. I was working here after the transaction was negotiated and before we completed the tender offer and the merger action took place. I stayed behind because (Publishing Group President) Jack Fuller wanted a publisher here to help develop the near-term actions we would take after the merger was consummated.
I was reading all the plans that had been developed over the last few years. I started studying the organization's structure and understanding the market in particular. But it was not determined that I would be publisher until after the tender offer closed and that was in late April.
Q: Mark Willes was criticized for trying to break down the walls between advertising and editorial. How do you stand on that?
A: I am a career newspaper guy. I have been in newspapers for almost all my professional career. Through that experience, I have a pretty good understanding of how newspapers work and the roles that individuals play within specific departments. My view is that you don't erect a wall anywhere in a company. A wall implies that communication stops.
My view is that editorial has its mission, which has to be independent for it to be credible. And on the business side we have a responsibility to create the revenue to help finance our news voice. Along the way to do that most effectively, conversations have to take place between the editorial department and the business side. What we want to do in organizing the paper is create an environment where certain advertisers can attract readers to their ads.
What goes in the editorial columns on any given day will always be determined by the editorial department, and there will be no influence from the business side as to what editorial position is taken or what content is published.
Q: Have you met with former Times publisher Otis Chandler, and if so, what advice did he give you?
A: I give him a lot of credit for making the Los Angeles Times what it is today. He has been helpful to me in explaining Southern California and explaining the history of the Los Angeles Times. But he hasn't sat down and told me this is how it should be. The way our relationship has developed is very helpful. We haven't had a conversation about how the paper should be run. He shares opinions about what he likes and dislikes. He respects my role here, and he offers input that is very constructive. We talk every once in a while on the phone.
Q: Mark Willes wanted to increase circulation by 500,000. What is your circulation goal?
A: We want to grow circulation in a way that makes sense to the reader and the advertisers. We are developing our strategy. It comes from a combination of improving the newspaper and how you market it, how you manage your customer service and the quality of delivery you provide. We have work in all of those areas. I want to grow it meaningfully every year. Increasing circulation for circulation's sake is not in our best interest. We need circulation that advertisers will find useful.
Q: You came from the Orlando Sentinel, a much smaller newspaper than the Times. Has it been a big leap?
A: Newspapers work pretty much the same way no matter what the size. What is so different about here is the geographic size of the market, the complexity of this market from a demographic point of view.
But also this is a world-view newspaper and that is a very important part of its editorial mission. It explains the world and events going on nationally to people in Southern California in a way that is hopefully helpful.
Our foreign operation is a distinguishing characteristic of the Times. We didn't have a large foreign operation in Orlando. So learning about that and how it fits into what we are doing is a relatively new experience for me. We have a complex publishing plan. We print in three production facilities, one in the San Fernando Valley, one in Costa Mesa in Orange County and one here in Los Angeles.
Q: How have you been adjusting to L.A.?
A: My wife is from here. She grew up in La Canada Flintridge. So we have been coming back for many years to see her family. We live in Pasadena, which is a great community. L.A. is so big and it has so much to offer that we are just getting to know it.
Q: What is the role of multimedia for the Times?
A: I believe that it is important for newspapers to think about distributing or moving the serious journalism they do through whatever media channel they can make available to their readers. If we relied solely on the printed newspaper over time, it would be difficult for us to maintain our shares and size of the news place.
As far as what we are doing in L.A., we want to develop a strong relationship with KTLA, also owned by the Tribune Co., and create a similar relationship to that which the Chicago Tribune created with WGN-TV in Chicago.
Q: By the pictures on the wall, I guess that you ski?
A: I spend a couple weeks every year helicopter skiing in British Columbia. It is why I work so hard. There are not too many people who can say they have done the one thing in their life that they have always wanted to do. I can say that.
Q: Any close calls with avalanches?
A: Well, we always wear transceivers. I did go under for the first time last year. I was hit from behind and I rode it down for about 100 vertical meters. Luckily, I stopped shallow enough where I could push a hand through. The snow went over my head and it went dark. But when it stopped I forced my hand up and was able to clear an airway and then they dug me out.
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