Saturday, September 30, 2006

The Newspaper Publisher Who Said No to More Cuts

By Katharine Q. Seelye
The New York Times

Thursday 28 September 2006

Less than a year ago, the Tribune Company told The Los Angeles Times to cut millions of dollars from the paper's budget and get rid of hundreds of jobs. The top editor and the publisher complied.

But when Tribune came calling last month to seek a new round of cuts, Jeffrey M. Johnson, the publisher, and Dean Baquet, the editor, had had enough. They refused to make what they considered drastic cuts and said so publicly.

In that space of time, Mr. Johnson - who has worked for Tribune for more than 20 years - seemed to many Los Angeles Times employees to transform himself as dramatically as Clark Kent does when he removes his glasses, steps into a phone booth and turns into Superman.

"Jeff has really emerged as a hero to a lot of us in the newsroom," said Mark Z. Barabak, a reporter who covers state and national politics. "You'd expect your editor to stand up and fight for the editorial integrity of the paper, but it was and is surprising and inspiring and courageous that the publisher stood alongside of him."

In reality, Mr. Johnson, 47, is a modest, unassuming family man with a wife and three sons who lives in a suburb of Los Angeles near Pasadena. "He's a very clean-cut, wholesome Midwestern boy," Mr. Baquet said. "He looks like the father on 'Leave It to Beaver.'"

This ordinary man now finds himself in extraordinary circumstances. Because of their refusals to go along with the cuts, Mr. Johnson and Mr. Baquet are in a showdown with their corporate parent, one that could cost them their jobs and could reverberate throughout the newspaper industry. And that showdown is taking place while Tribune is wrapped up in a bigger drama over its own corporate destiny. The future of The Los Angeles Times, the fourth-biggest paper in the country, as well as the Tribune's 10 other papers and two dozen television stations hangs in the balance.

Mr. Johnson was summoned to Chicago last week and emerged in what colleagues said was a typically low-key fashion, with the situation defused. He and Mr. Baquet still have their jobs, at least for now. But many say that they expect them to be fired sooner or later and that the paper's financial challenges - rising costs and declining revenues - are likely to remain.

Mr. Johnson declined to be interviewed for this article. But some who work with him say he sympathizes strongly with the growing frustration in Los Angeles over the cutbacks ordered from Chicago, felt not just in the newsroom but also in the circulation, advertising and business departments.

People who know him well say his recent actions show him to be the person he has always been: a straightforward, levelheaded businessman who has a strong moral compass.

"Jeff is being the best Tribune employee he can be right now and doing what he thinks is best for the business, regardless of the cost to him professionally," said Russ Newton, the paper's vice president for operations, who has responsibility for the production plants. He has known and worked with Mr. Johnson throughout the Tribune Company for more than 20 years.

Mr. Johnson has stepped from the shadows at a time of turmoil at his company and across the newspaper industry, especially for major metropolitan dailies, which are struggling to adapt as readers and advertisers decamp to the Internet. Many papers, including The New York Times, have been cutting the size of their staffs, trimming the physical size of their papers and offering prime news space on their section fronts to advertisers.

But the transition at the Tribune Company has been more difficult than many. It owns several big papers in major markets, including The Chicago Tribune, Newsday, The Baltimore Sun and The Hartford Courant. The biggest is Los Angeles, where the problems of the industry are writ large, and where the fate of Mr. Johnson and Mr. Baquet may be prompting others across the country to consider testing the limits of their own corporate cost-cutters.

Mr. Johnson was born in North Dakota in 1959. He got his undergraduate degree from the University of Illinois and his master's in business from the University of Chicago.

He has worked for Tribune since 1984, starting in the corporate office. He worked in various operations positions at the Chicago Tribune and then became senior vice president for operations at The Orlando Sentinel, another Tribune paper. In 1998, he moved to Ohio with Landoll Inc., a former Tribune education company, where he became chief operating officer.

In 2000, he was made general manager of The Los Angeles Times, where his longtime colleague and friend, John Puerner, was publisher. When Mr. Puerner stepped down in 2005, Mr. Johnson was appointed by Tribune to take his place.

Mr. Johnson has spent much of his time as publisher promoting the paper with business executives. Those who have met him several times said that their impressions of Mr. Johnson led them to think that his refusal to make the cuts demanded by Tribune was rooted in business principles.

"Here is a guy who really understands the business side of the business and has a tremendous respect for the product," said Matt Toledo, publisher of The Los Angeles Business Journal.

George Kieffer, chairman of a loosely formed group of business leaders, who wrote a letter recently to Tribune protesting proposed cuts, said Mr. Johnson spent a lot of time listening, patiently, to complaints about the paper. "When I have called to complain, he is the epitome of a good listener and constructive defender of the paper," he said.

Colleagues say Mr. Johnson has long believed that drastic cuts alone would not help the paper grow.

"Jeff has never said that we don't need to make intelligent cost cuts," said Jack Klunder, senior vice president for circulation at The Los Angeles Times. "The challenge is, How do you grow your business when you have years of a stagnant or even declining revenue picture? You can't grow your business just by cutting costs."

Dennis FitzSimons, the chief executive of the Tribune Company, declined to comment for this article.

Despite his commitments as publisher, Mr. Johnson takes part in activities at his children's school, according to Robin George, a former television reporter in Chicago who now lives near Mr. Johnson in La Canada and met him through their children's school. "He has an engagement almost every night, but he's there for our school fund-raisers, he attends every event that parents go to," she said. "Even with all the pressure, he still coaches soccer."

Until now, Mr. Johnson had only sporadic contact with the paper's news side, which is traditionally separated from the business side.

"As general manager, he was never seen as an enemy of the newsroom," said John Carroll, who was the editor of The Los Angeles Times until last year when he quit, in part because of cost-cutting pressures from Tribune. "He was seen as a guy who was scrupulously neutral. Sometimes you get a guy who likes to take a pound of flesh, but Jeff was not at all like that."

Mr. Baquet, who was appointed editor last year, said he started to get to know Mr. Johnson better when the two visited the paper's Washington bureau last year.

They also spent time together as they confronted the cuts that Tribune had them make. Mr. Baquet said he went along with those cuts last year because he was convinced that if he did not make them, someone else would and that he could make them more judiciously. He said that in making those cuts, the news side showed the publisher that it was willing to do its share.

"He thinks we're responsive and responsible," Mr. Baquet said of his publisher. "We deliver what we say we'll deliver."

But Mr. Baquet cautioned that just because they had worked together, he and Mr. Johnson did not always see eye to eye. One recent disagreement, he said, was over whether the paper should put ads on its section fronts.

"I don't like them, and I made that clear to him," Mr. Baquet said. "We had a full-bodied debate and he sided with the advertisers. But he listened." The upshot was that there are ads on the section fronts except, as Mr. Baquet requested, no movie ads on the front of the entertainment section on the Friday of a movie opening.

Mr. Johnson appeared to be impressed this year when a memorial service for the paper's legendary publisher, Otis Chandler, brought together an array of current and former Times employees, many of them luminaries in the newspaper industry.

"It was a great tribute to the power of the paper," Mr. Baquet said. "It hit him very clearly that he had a big legacy to uphold as the publisher of The L.A. Times."

Jennifer Steinhauer contributed reporting from Los Angeles.

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