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American Journalism Review
A Classy Farewell  | American Journalism Review
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From AJR,   February/March 2008

A Classy Farewell   

Online Exclusive » Ousted L.A. Times Editor Jim O’Shea doesn’t go away quietly

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


Props to Jim O'Shea.

So often when top media executives are tossed overboard, they vanish silently. Rarely do they give up the story behind the story or unload on their former bosses. No doubt departure packages requiring them to keep quiet often have something to do with that.

But when O'Shea lost his job as editor of the Los Angeles Times in a pitched battle over newsroom resources with Publisher David Hiller, he went down firing, lock, stock and two smoking barrels.

First, O'Shea wanted to make clear that regardless of the party line, he had not stepped down voluntarily. But he also was determined to spotlight the utter bankruptcy of Tribune Co.'s approach to newspapering.

There's no doubt that these are very challenging times for newspapers. The advent of the Internet meant the end of the good old days of eye-popping profits year after year. The media climate has changed, irrevocably. The future is uncertain.

Pretty much everyone knows that. The question is what to do about it.

Tribune's approach – and it's hardly alone here – has been to cut, cut, cut. It hasn't worked all that well, as you may have noticed.

On his way out, O'Shea made the case that there has to be a better way, one that would tap into the talents of journalists to help solve the problem rather than treating them as unsophisticated children who simply don't understand the real world.

Decrying the Tribune thinking as "voodoo economics," O'Shea said, "Journalists and not accountants should seize responsibility for the financial health of our newspapers so journalists can make decisions about the size of our staffs and how much news remains in our papers and Web sites."

O'Shea--a longtime Chicago Tribune editor before he was dispatched to L.A. for the thankless, ultimately hopeless task of trying to put out a world-class newspaper while satisfying the Tribune Co. bean-counters--also stressed that he had no illusions about the difficulties facing the newspaper business. "This is a tough time in the company and the industry. I understand that. I spent much of my career covering business and economics. I understand the realities of the bottom line. I am not some naïve, starry-eyed journalist who can't accept economic reality. I know you have to cut back in hard times. I've done that more often than I care to mention."

It's just that steadily weakening your product in an extremely competitive marketplace – or skimping on news coverage during a year featuring a hotly contested presidential campaign and the Olympics – doesn't make a whole lot of sense.

The O'Shea beheading was not exactly a promising debut for the newly private Tribune Co. under Sam Zell. Ironically, Zell has criticized Tribune management and talked about the need to increase revenue rather than mindlessly cut the budget. But his instincts ran up against another Zell tenet: local control.

While the budget decision was Hiller's, not Zell's, the real estate mogul said the publisher had his full support.

Decentralized decision-making is often a good thing. But if Zell isn't going to set a tone, if the old Tribune execs simply keep on doing things the old Tribune way, this is no new era at all.

Whatever transpires, there's no doubt that O'Shea deserves credit for his classy exit. It's refreshing to see an executive in the truth-telling business do some truth-telling.

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