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From AJR,   February/March 2008

Leaving L.A.   

Online Exclusive The departure of Los Angeles Times Editor James O'Shea is a sad way to mark the beginning of a new era at Tribune Co.

By Rem Rieder
Rem Rieder (rrieder@ajr.umd.edu) is AJR's editor and senior vice president.      


Not too auspicious a start for the Sam Zell Era at Tribune Co.

Yet another editor of Tribune's crown jewel, the Los Angeles Times, has been shown the door in a dispute over, you guessed it, budget cuts.

In a complicated deal that closed last month, real estate mogul Zell took Tribune private. Some saw reasons for hope in his arrival, in the wake of the carnage caused by Tribune's penny-wise, pound foolish approach at some very good newspaper properties. Zell has said that rather than cut costs, he wants to increase revenue, and even suggested that Tribune's overall workforce would grow over time.

Now comes news that L.A. Times Editor James O'Shea is leaving after finding himself on the losing end of squabbles over the budget with Times Publisher David Hiller. While details are murky, word out of L.A. suggests that O'Shea was not too enthusiastic about skimping during a presidential election.

Maybe hold off on those Zellebrations.

In fairness, it's unclear at this point whether the move had Zell's blessing. The mogul has said that he plans to leave much of the decision-making to minions on the scene. But Hiller reports directly to Zell. Whatever the back story, it's hardly a reassuring sign.

And while, sure, a new owner gets to pick his own people, it's awfully discouraging when the first big development is the same-old, same-old publisher forcing out a first-rate newsman like O'Shea. Ironically, O'Shea is a longtime Tribune guy who was sent out to L.A. in a previous round of blood-letting.

In fact, there's a Groundhog Day feel to O'Shea's departure. Hiller, who had been publisher of the Chicago Tribune, was dispatched to L.A. in October 2006 after his predecessor, Jeffrey Johnson, was ousted. Johnson's sins included resisting budget-slashing pressures from headquarters and backing highly regarded Editor Dean Baquet after Baquet publicly assailed the slashing and burning of America's newspapers and urged editors to fight back. Baquet left not long after Hiller arrived.

Barely over a year before, another outstanding editor, John Carroll, stepped down as editor of the Times after years of punishing budget battles.

It will be interesting to see who succeeds O'Shea. Some advice: Rent, don't buy.

As for life with Sam Zell, we've only just begun. Let's hope things get better, a lot better.

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