It didn’t take the Tribune Co. long to start tinkering with L.A.’s biggest daily newspaper, installing a new publisher and editor last week at the Los Angeles Times even though Tribune won’t officially own parent Times Mirror Co. for another two months or so.
Much has been written bemoaning the sale of a paper that has been L.A.’s voice for more than a century and has had a towering influence on the city’s development. But the changes being made so far look to be positive ones for the daily.
Incoming Publisher John Puerner and Editor John Carroll have a chance to start with a clean slate at a newspaper whose name has been dragged through the mud in recent months. With new ownership and entirely new upper managers come a host of new opportunities to rebuild bridges with the community and repair a badly tarnished journalistic reputation.
Once the dust settles, the two Johns could best accomplish these ends by considering the following:
-Don’t undo a century of community involvement by pulling back from Times Mirror’s philanthropic commitments. Business and political leaders are justifiably worried that out-of-town owners won’t care at all about things like creating a sense of identity for a highly diverse city or investing in community growth. Puerner or Carroll could prove them wrong or prove them right.
-Listen. A reputation for arrogance, for boosting downtown expansion at the expense of outlying communities, and for ignoring the concerns of minority groups has dogged the Times for years. The best way to undo that reputation is simply to hear people out and keep an open mind.
-Stop doing dumb things. The paper’s reputation as among the highest-quality dailies in the nation took a beating last fall after revelations emerged about a controversial profit-sharing joint venture with the new Staples Center. But that isn’t the only faux pas by the paper’s outgoing management; former Publisher Kathryn Downing was widely mocked after boasting she would boost circulation at the paper by 1 million readers. More recently, she approved a controversial advertising campaign that deeply offended groups representing Muslims and women, in addition to the newspaper’s own staff. Downing can perhaps be forgiven for some of these mistakes because she completely lacked journalism experience when given the top job at the Times. Puerner and Carroll have no such excuse.
-Rebuild the wall between the editorial and advertising departments. Outgoing Times Mirror chief Mark Willes made tearing down the wall a top priority, but there’s no evidence that doing so has improved operations one iota. There is a reason this separation exists at virtually every reputable U.S. newspaper: It’s to prevent financial arrangements that could compromise a paper’s journalistic objectivity arrangements like the ill-advised Staples Center deal.
Though some staffers at the Times have expressed concern that Carroll has no experience running a paper the size of the L.A. daily he is former editor of the Baltimore Sun, a paper that is a fraction of the size of the Times he’s a well-regarded editor with a strong track record. He has promised to go after the Times’ local competition, perhaps signaling an intention to intensify the paper’s coverage of local news, something most local business people would welcome.
As for Puerner, it’s been a week since the official announcement of his job as publisher and he still hasn’t said anything embarrassing. That already gives him a leg up on Downing, who made her absurd circulation claims the day her tenure as publisher began.