General Mills' Gift to Journalism
Times Mirror not only went outside the company, it went far outside thecommunications industry to find its new chief executive. Can numbercruncher Mark Willes improve the company's disappointing financialperformance without hurting editorial quality?
By Carol Pogash
T HEY COULD HAVE ANOINTED anyone inside the company. They could havelured practically anyone in the business. Instead, Times Mirror foundits new president and CEO at General Mills, the packaged food company.Mark H. Willes, a General Mills vice chairman and an economist bytraining, had been immersed in Wheaties, Fruit Roll Ups and HamburgerHelper for the last 15 years.
Willes had not worked in news, communications, computers or evenentertainment.His only connection to journalism was that he read newspapers.
In a fun but ultimately stomach churning article, the New York Timesromped all over the appointment. In it, Willes suggested that the decline innewspaper circulation may be the result of insufficient attention to readers'needs. His examples of successfully consulting consumers? The marketing ofcereals and cake mixes. World news, the new boss seemed to say, should bemarketed like a jumbo box of Cheerios.
With the shock of Willes' appointment, Times Mirror newsrooms bubbledwith gallows humor. The inevitable "Top 10" list made its way through theLos Angeles Times: Anything new in the paper? "Nuttin Honey."
So putting a businessman with no journalism background in charge of apublishing empire is crazy, right? Maybe not. Given the recent history of TimesMirror, the choice of a businessman/outsider was almost inevitable. As thethird largest newspaper publisher in the U.S., Times Mirror is a $3 billioncorporation that owns the Los Angeles Times, Newsday, Baltimore's Sun,the Hartford Courant and other papers.
It also owns magazines ranging fromPopular Science and Field & Stream to the National Journal, and publisheslegal, health, art and educational books and materials. But its profit marginshave lagged behind those of comparable corporations. For example, last yearTimes Mirror's profit margin for newspapers was 9.4 percent, compared to16.4 percent for Knight-Ridder and 23.1 percent for Gannett.
Members of the search committee that settled on Willes would say littleabout their efforts. But it's clear they didn't find what they werelookingfor in the media business.
"I think they had looked around inside the industry and couldn't find thetalent they were looking for that would get the stock price back up," says aformer Times Mirror executive.
T HE HIRING OF WILLES , 54, is yet another reflection of the evolution of thenewspaper industry from a collection of family owned and operated entitiesto an industry dominated by publicly held corporations whose firstallegiance is to shareholders. ###
"That constituency can be overlooked only at the peril of the publications,"says Tom Goldstein, dean of the University of California at BerkeleyGraduate School of Journalism. But with corporate control, says one retiredTimes Mirror editor, "the people in charge of making newspapers, thecreators and shapers of newspapers, are really in a secondary role," which isnot necessarily a good thing as far as the final product is concerned.
Despite the jokes, Willes' appointment was hardly unprecedented. "Theynever had journalists running that company from the get-go," says StevenIsaacs, an associate dean of Columbia University's Graduate School ofJournalism, who knows and admires Willes. Outgoing Times Mirror CEORobert Erburu is a lawyer, although he held other positions in the companybefore taking the top one. In the 1960s, Times Mirror selected for its CEOFranklin D. Murphy, a former chancellor of the University of California atLos Angeles.
"I think there's something very unique about journalistic principles, the wayjournalists approach their work, see the world," says David Cox, CEO ofCowles Communication, who was in snow blowers and lawnmowers beforejoining the publishing business. "That's something one has to learn if you'renot familiar with it."
Mark Willes' education has just begun.