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From AJR,   July/August 1999  issue

A Painful Decision   

Times Mirror chieftain Mark H. Willes says it was painful but necessary to relinquish his role as publisher of the Los Angeles Times after 20 months.

By Carol Guensburg
Carol Guensburg (carol.guensburg@verizon.net) is senior editor for the Journalism Center on Children & Families, a University of Maryland professional program - and a nonprofit. It receives primary support from the Annie E. Casey Foundation. Guensburg spent 14 years as an editor and reporter for the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel after working for three other papers.     

Times Mirror chieftain Mark H. Willes says it was painful but necessary to relinquish his role as publisher of the Los Angeles Times after 20 months.

"Being publisher was intrinsically the most satisfying job I've ever had in my life," says Willes, who turns 58 on July 16. "In some sense, commiseration is more in order than congratulations. I really personally didn't want to give up the job."

But, he adds, "We've now made the fundamental kind of retooling and restructuring we needed to make" and installed able, creative managers to advance the paper and its goals. "So now it seems appropriate that I get out of their way."

Willes, who continues as Times Mirror's chairman, president and CEO, stepped down June 3 to concentrate on the newspaper's parent company, promoting Kathryn M. Downing to publisher. The 46-year-old Downing, who was appointed the Times' president and chief executive officer in March 1998, retains those duties.

Willes came to the company in June 1995 from General Mills, and his aggressive belt-tightening tactics, which included shutting down New York Newsday, promptly earned him the sobriquet "Cereal Killer." He named himself Times publisher in October 1997. Willes' vow to reinvent the newspaper business by detonating the wall between editorial and business departments ignited fears that advertisers would unduly influence coverage.

But, says Jack Nelson, the paper's chief Washington correspondent, "For all the talk about tearing down the wall between editorial and advertising, that really hasn't happened."

Willes nonetheless says those departments now communicate better with each other. He says he's replaced the wall with "lines" of authority that "appropriately demarcate areas of responsibility."

Downing has pledged to boost Times circulation by as much as 1 million; she acknowledged in a Times story that the paper's numbers had dipped in this year's second quarter. Circulation is now 1,098,347 daily and 1,385,787 on Sunday.

Downing's promotion hasn't caused anxiety in the editorial ranks, Nelson and another veteran reporter say. Willes "brought in Kathryn, and so my guess is she'll pretty much carry out his blueprint for the paper," says an approving Nelson.

"Everybody shrugs their shoulders and says, 'Ho hum, we have another publisher,' " says another longtime writer, who asks to remain unnamed. "People don't spend a lot of time worrying about it. Everybody knows the best days are long past."

But Willes suggests good days lie ahead. "People sense this is a sign of continuity, not change," he says. "After all of the agony that we've gone through in the process of beginning this reinvention, this is actually closure... The direction is now set, the people are set."