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From AJR,   December/January 2005  issue

Uncertain Times   

The Los Angeles Times, bloodied by the Mark Willes era and the Staples Center fiasco, rebounded strongly after its parent company was acquired by Tribune Co. in 2000. Now a bruising year of staff cuts, newshole reductions and content-sharing pressures has raised concerns about the future of the Times and other prestigious former Times Mirror properties.

Related reading:   Tribune Co. Holdings

By Rachel Smolkin
     

Los Angeles Times editors Roxane Arnold and Stephanie Chavez were lunching in the sixth-floor executive dining room when Mark H. Willes, CEO of Times Mirror, the paper's parent company, joined them.

Weeks earlier, on March 13, 2000, the Chicago-based Tribune Co. had announced it was acquiring Times Mirror. The company would cease to exist as a separate entity, and the bustling labyrinth of corporate offices outside the dining room would soon stand empty.

On Willes' last day, he announced he would buy lunch for the pair, then warned them that their lives were about to deteriorate. He said Tribune Co. was cheap and didn't care about circulation or its employees. The gist of his lecture, as Arnold recalls it: You're going to be really unhappy. You have no idea how good you had it.

At first glance, Willes' comments were ludicrous. This, after all, was the former General Mills executive vilified in the industry as the "Cereal Killer" for his drastic cost-cutting. He had shuttered Long Island-based Newsday's New York City paper and fired thousands of Times Mirror employees. His crusade to blow up the sacred wall between business and editorial had imploded with the Times' disastrous 1999 deal to share ad revenue from a special magazine issue about the Staples Center with the center itself (see "Down and Out in L.A.," January/February 2000).

In the four-and-a-half years since that lunch, Tribune Co. has presented an admirable contrast to the Willes regime, presiding over the restoration and enhancement of the L.A. Times (see "Let the Good Times Roll," September 2001). Jack Fuller, president of Tribune Publishing, helped persuade Baltimore Sun Editor John S. Carroll to resuscitate the Times instead of leaving to head Harvard University's prestigious Nieman Foundation. Carroll and John Puerner, the Orlando Sentinel publisher who became publisher of the Times, upgraded the embattled newspaper dramatically. The Times won an enviable five Pulitzer Prizes this year, a feat surpassed only by the New York Times' seven in the aftermath of 9/11.

Yet despite the progress in Los Angeles, a bruising year for Tribune Co. has heightened fears about its stewardship of the eight papers it acquired--the Times, the Sun and Newsday among them--for $8.3 billion in cash and stock. Cost-saving measures, punctuated by staff cuts, newshole reductions and vigorous efforts to share stories and resources throughout the chain, have triggered alarms that the company will diminish the individuality and the quality of papers regarded as industry treasures.

A bleak November further darkened the outlook for the former Times Mirror papers. At Newsday, reeling from a circulation-inflation scandal, the November 9 resignation of Editor Howard Schneider was followed by an announcement two days later that the paper would shed some 100 positions. Half were expected to come from the newsroom--close to 10 percent of the editorial staff. The paper's respected Washington bureau was preparing to slash staff from 14 to six.

L.A. Times editors were trying to fend off further cuts in their newsroom budget. The Hartford Courant's publisher said the paper may eliminate several jobs next year and declined to rule out layoffs. And at the Orlando Sentinel, a longtime Tribune paper, the publisher announced layoffs of nine employees and the elimination of 11 open positions because "2004 has not shaped up to be the recovery year we hoped."

The 2000 Times Mirror acquisition was unprecedented, and not only because it was the largest such deal in newspaper history. The L.A. Times is widely regarded as one of the three or four best papers in the country. None of its peers--the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal and the Washington Post--had ever been sold to an outside company.

While Times Mirror had been known more for its quality papers than its business acumen, the Times' new guardian was a Midwestern behemoth with a reputation for publishing good--but not necessarily great--papers, including its flagship Chicago Tribune, and for greater centralization and focus on the bottom line. Suddenly, it owned at least one paper superior in quality to its others, and some industry observers would have bestowed a similar designation on Newsday and the Sun.

In an environment of newspaper monopolies and soaring demand for double-digit profits, Tribune Co. faces a test vital to the industry's health: Can it succeed on Wall Street against profit-driven competitors such as Gannett and still protect the jewels it acquired?

Or will the future of the Times, Newsday and the Sun mirror the tragedy at Knight Ridder, where relentless cost-cutting gradually dulled the sheen of the Philadelphia Inquirer and the Miami Herald?

Widely known for its pioneering efforts in synergy--the sharing of "content" among newspapers, television, radio and the Internet--Tribune has used the merger as an opportunity to bolster synergy among its newspapers as well. Executives encourage papers to use one another's stories, graphics and photos and are preparing to move all the company's Washington bureaus into one space in late 2005.

The most powerful journalistic question surrounding cooperative efforts and the shared bureau is whether they will free reporters to focus on richer enterprise, as the Tribune architects of these initiatives say, or whether they will limit editors' choices, continue to reduce staff and stifle individuality.

Such moves raise the specter of increasingly generic papers in an industry already defined too much by mediocrity. A shared Washington space, in particular, stirs fears that the Times bureau--one of the largest and best in Washington--could suffer over the long term, that distinguished traditions of Washington journalism at the Sun and Newsday will disappear and that healthy competition among those papers and the Chicago Tribune will languish.

Fuller, who is retiring at the end of December, told editors he didn't want to follow the Knight Ridder model, in which national correspondents serve multiple papers and report to one bureau chief. He rejects both this "corporate bureau" and the independent fiefdom model, saying he wants to find a "third way" to do business.

In April, he instructed editors to reduce Washington staff by 10 percent overall prior to the move. But in November, several editors were trying to stave off far more draconian cuts to their bureaus.

The plan under discussion envisioned the two largest papers, the Times and the Chicago Tribune, taking the 10 percent hit but other bureaus absorbing far deeper reductions. Under this approach, the Times would act as a sort of super-bureau for the company. At AJR's deadline, Newsday sources said the paper would cut its Washington staff to six people; the Hartford Courant's editor warned in a staff memo of cuts to its bureau. The Sun could be forced to cut about half its D.C. staff, a drop its editor hoped to lessen.

Fuller, 58, is a former Chicago Tribune editor and publisher and a Pulitzer Prize winner for editorial writing who graduated from Yale Law School the same year as Bill and Hillary Clinton. A novelist, Fuller also wrote "News Values: Ideas for an Information Age," a 1996 treatise on journalism ethics and the news business. In it, he makes a cogent argument for newspapers with strongly local flavors.

"Every newspaper, from the most cosmopolitan national daily to the smallest rural weekly, is provincial," Fuller wrote. "To survive, a newspaper must reflect a specific audience, usually by holding up a mirror to a particular place."

Peering over glasses perched midway down his nose and speaking in a deep purr, Fuller could more easily be pictured lecturing in any Ivy League hall than holding forth on the 23rd floor of a Fortune 500 company. His "News Values" bursts with references to Plato, Simone de Beauvoir and the Federalist Papers.

But Fuller also is a pragmatic businessman who makes no pretense of ignoring pressures on a publicly traded company during an economic downturn amid increasing media fragmentation and exploding Internet competition. If newspapers don't use resources more wisely, Fuller says, competitive pressures eventually will force them to resort to far more painful measures.

Asked whether encouraging content-sharing and a single Washington bureau sets his newspapers on a slippery slope, Fuller replies: "I don't look at this as getting people on a slippery slope. I look at it as getting them on a ledge, where they can stand, so they can survive and stay there."

Tribune Co.'s holdings are vast. They include 14 daily newspapers, 26 broadcast television stations and the Chicago Cubs. It is the nation's third-largest newspaper company by circulation.

Tribune's purchase of Times Mirror gave it newspapers and television stations in the nation's top three markets (New York, Chicago and Los Angeles), augmenting its strategy of reaching audiences and advertisers through newspapers, TV and the Internet (see "Synergy City," May 1998). The Federal Communications Commission will have to loosen its rule against such cross-ownership, or at least grant waivers, if the company is to keep all these properties after TV station license renewals come up starting in 2006.

In 1999, the year before the merger, Tribune's newspaper division posted an operating profit margin of 29.2 percent, the industry's highest that year, while Times Mirror lagged at 18.2 percent, notes John Morton, a media analyst and AJR columnist. Over time, Tribune Co. has "started to get the Times Mirror papers more in line with Tribune papers in terms of staffing," Morton says, "and I'm sure the goal for the whole company is to get back up to 29 percent."

Beset by the recession soon after the merger, Tribune's publishing division posted a profit margin of 20.1 percent from January through June of this year, slightly higher than the industry average. (The company based its 1999 margin on traditional newspaper operations but now lumps Internet revenue with other publishing businesses.) Among its competitors' newspaper divisions, industry leader Gannett posted a margin of 27.3 percent, followed by the E.W. Scripps Co. at 26.6 percent. Knight Ridder trailed at 18.1 percent.

"Times Mirror wasn't a traditional newspaper chain as much as a loose confederation of newspapers," says former Newsday Editor Anthony Marro, who retired last year after 35 years with the paper. "Tribune is more of a centrally managed company. It's not necessarily better or worse, but it's different. There was an awful lot of oversight given to papers outside of Chicago."

Tribune Co. has exerted its influence by installing new publishers at the major former Times Mirror papers, most recently at Newsday, where the deepening circulation-inflation scandal forced Tribune to set aside $90 million as of mid-November to compensate advertisers. On November 11, Publisher Timothy Knight announced the elimination of approximately 100 positions at the paper through voluntary and involuntary buyouts.

Zachary R. Dowdy, a Newsday reporter and the paper's union representative in the newsroom, told AJR he and other union members were surprised that half of those positions were expected to come from the newsroom. A Newsday source said the Washington bureau plan called for the reduction by December 2005, but staffers could take buyouts now rather than move or see their jobs eliminated later.

Other buyouts and layoffs, widespread in the industry during the economic downturn, have rattled Tribune's newspapers. On June 7, Tribune Co. announced that an advertising revenue shortfall, largely attributed to the L.A. Times, necessitated cuts throughout its newspaper group.

The elimination of 375 news and non-news positions, about half from the Times, occurred on the heels of the Times' Pulitzer triumph, stoking staff fears that Tribune's swift reaction was a panicked and shortsighted attempt to appease Wall Street. During the last few months, the company's shares have traded in the low $40s, down from a 52-week high of $53 in February.

Before his abrupt departure in November, then-Newsday Editor Howard Schneider--a fast-talking New Yorker who briefly succeeded Marro and worked for 35 years at the tabloid--said that with such financial pressures squeezing the company, Tribune will face a three-part test in coming years. Will individual papers be able to retain distinctive personalities? Will the company's emphasis on economies of scale create more, or less, flexibility for editors? Will Tribune reinvest in its newsrooms after the economy improves, or will competitive pressures preclude investment, and possibly erode resources further?

The answers to the questions he posed in August will define Tribune's stewardship and its success in marrying investors' expectations and ambitious journalism.

The task of fostering cooperative efforts among Tribune papers, including the newly acquired Times Mirror dailies, fell to Howard Tyner, then editor of the Chicago Tribune and vice president of editorial for Tribune Publishing. His mission was to "get the editorial departments of the papers to all work for the same company," says Tyner, who played both roles until February 2001, when he relinquished the editorship to focus exclusively on the Tribune Publishing job. "Even if in fact they worked for the same company, they didn't in their heads."

Over iced tea last summer at Wolfgang Puck's restaurant in the Chicago suburb of Evanston, Illinois, Tyner, who retired in December 2003, recalled wanting "to see if there were ways that we could work together to reduce unnecessary duplication of effort with a view to saving money..without compromising journalistic integrity."

Gerould Kern, Tyner's deputy who succeeded him as VP of editorial and also rose through the ranks at the Chicago Tribune, added in an interview at the lofty Tribune Tower that the company wanted to "improve quality by increasing choice." The goal is "to do more work that's unique and exceptional" by sharing routine stories and freeing resources for enterprise and investigative reporting.

Efforts to trim duplication have taken various forms and achieved varying degrees of success. Kern studied redundancy in freelance assignments, such as trips to London or reviews of a bestseller, and concluded trimming 10 percent to 20 percent of freelance spending could save the company some $2 million annually. He asked editors if they could share the best freelance stories more widely. In an e-mail, Kern wrote that freelance spending is down significantly since the merger but there is "potential for more progress."

An early attempt at promoting a shared movie section from the L.A. Times sputtered after a few years. Tyner had hoped to start a shared golf section, but ad executives warned that newspapers were not the preferred medium for golf equipment manufacturers.

In January, Tribune Co. launched "Your Money," its first attempt to publish a weekly section across its entire newspaper group. The Sunday section, a compilation of user-friendly financial stories and advice produced by the Chicago Tribune's business news department, appears in various incarnations in nine of Tribune's 11 English-language papers.

L.A. Times editors, backed by their publisher, decided the section did not dovetail with their business section, which increasingly focuses on beat reporting rather than news-you-can-use. Tribune's South Florida Sun-Sentinel in Ft. Lauderdale, battling for readers with Knight Ridder's Miami Herald and Cox's Palm Beach Post, argued it had a beneficial business relationship with the Wall Street Journal and wanted to continue to use its financial package.

"We needed to have this critical mass of newspapers to make it work," Kern says. Although some staffers regard "Your Money" copy as generic and unsophisticated, Kern says it taught papers how to publish together without sacrificing local options and has succeeded from a business standpoint, attracting new national advertising.

Kern also quantified how many "family" stories each Tribune newspaper exports and imports. Story sharing has more than tripled since the merger, and stories from sister papers run a close second to the Associated Press among supplemental news sources in Tribune papers.

But Tribune Co.'s new charges did not greet its cooperative efforts with universal enthusiasm.

Tyner says editors from the big Times Mirror papers viewed such endeavors with "a great deal of suspicion," which "made them very reluctant to do more than the minimum." He says this became increasingly frustrating, not just for corporate people like himself, but for Tribune editors. "In many, many cases with the big papers," he says, "things were presented as voluntary, and they were automatically rejected."

The position that first Tyner and then Kern occupied came without enforcement power: They could cajole, but not impose. When Tyner expressed his frustration to Fuller, his boss told him, " 'They don't work for you. They work for their publishers,'" and wouldn't give him direct authority.

Nor was the frustration limited to those at Tribune. At the Times, Tribune ownership represented the first breach of local control in the paper's then 119-year history.

"It's felt to me as if we are under occupation," says Simon K.C. Li, a Times assistant managing editor and former foreign editor who has spent two decades at the paper. "Some foreign army invaded. They put in a good governor in John Puerner, but the governor keeps getting messages from Chicago that are really just awful."

Among the "messages" that Li dislikes: When he was foreign editor, the corporate offices stopped cash advances to reporters. The United States had invaded Afghanistan, and each Times reporter rotating in had been taking $10,000 in cash. When Li appealed, he was told that company-issued American Express cards were sufficient. Although an exception finally was made, Li remains incredulous that anybody in the newspaper business would think American Express cards worked in Afghanistan.

He says Tribune's attitude is, "We bought you, we own you, do as you're told." Asking questions fuels the paper's image as "spoiled," Li says, adding, "They did nothing to explain themselves, explain their culture. We have a culture clash."

But some longtime staffers say this feeling of us-versus-them is ironic given long-standing fractious relations among Times Mirror papers.

Randy Harvey, a veteran Times sportswriter and editor who became the Sun's assistant managing editor for sports in April, has observed a "real or perceived" division, "a sense among the Times Mirror papers that we're somehow treated differently than the old Trib papers." But under Times Mirror, papers outside L.A. resented distant ownership and the Times' favored status. "We weren't exactly one big, happy family," Harvey says. "There was no harmony."

The perception that the June budget cuts hit the former Times Mirror papers particularly hard, he adds, "probably went farther toward bonding the Times Mirror papers than anything Times Mirror ever did."

Nowhere is the evolving relationship between Tribune Co. and its new charges more complicated or closely watched than at the Times, the flagship of its former company and the most decorated paper in the Tribune chain.

A Times editor contends Tribune Co. leaders don't quite understand the paper or how it fits into their company. "Nothing like this had happened before. All the other big papers were grown within their companies," the editor says. "They want it to be great, but great is a very subjective word in the newspaper business... How big is great? Does great include the size of the profit margin? We're probably perplexing to them. We say no a lot."

But even staffers who mourn the loss of Times Mirror, particularly the paper's glory days and lavish spending under Otis Chandler, the publisher from 1960 to 1980, generally concede the journalism has improved under Tribune ownership--even if they don't necessarily credit Tribune for the advances.

The paper "is the strongest that it's been in all the years I've been here," Deputy Managing Editor Leo Wolinsky says. During most of his 27 years at the Times, he felt it was "about 80 percent of the way there," but over the last four years he feels it's achieved about 90 percent of its potential and is closing on the last 10. "Probably the only time that progress has been this rapid was the early years of Otis Chandler, when the paper went from being one of the worst papers in the country to becoming one of the best."

Roger Smith, a senior projects editor whose tenure matches Wolinsky's, says his paper is far more competitive with the New York Times than it was four years ago. Asked about Tribune's ownership, Smith replies: "If you compare yourself to Knight Ridder or Gannett, we are golden."

These editors and other staffers attribute improvements to the leadership of the "two Johns," Puerner and Carroll, and of Managing Editor Dean Baquet.

After Fuller's bit of matchmaking in uniting Carroll and Puerner, Puerner tackled the twin goals of improving quality and achieving the "financial returns necessary to make the acquisition work."

He streamlined the business staff, reducing the number of Times employees from 5,300 in 2000 to 3,400 in 2003 while largely protecting the newsroom. He also closed 14 money-losing zoned editions called Our Times.

As Willes predicted, circulation has dropped. In September 1999, the Times' reported circulation was 1,078,000 daily and 1,362,000 Sunday. As of September 2004, the paper reported daily circulation of 902,164 and Sunday sales of 1,292,274. Early in Puerner's tenure, he canceled about 45,000 papers given to subscribers of the Spanish-language daily La Opinión and curtailed other circulation practices he felt didn't benefit the paper. Circulation has dropped roughly 6 percent since last year.

Tribune Co. has invested in the Times to boost the paper's long-term revenue, spending a projected $220 million on capital projects from 2000 to 2004. The largest of these commitments include $45 million to add eight color pages late this year or early next year--a 33 percent increase to the Times' color-printing capacity--and $50 million for a new facility that automates insertions of pre-printed advertisements.

On the news side, Carroll recruited talented reporters and editors, including Managing Editor Baquet, 48, whom he lured from a promising career at the New York Times, where he was national editor. Baquet's arrival added another layer to the Tribune-Times Mirror alliance: He had worked early in his reporting career at the Chicago Tribune, where he and Ann Marie Lipinski, now that paper's editor, shared a Pulitzer for investigative reporting.

One major newspaper industry figure says that Fuller deserves much credit for the Times' resurgence. Fuller, "from the point of view of human quality and the point of view of judgment and news experience, is about as good a person as there is in the newspaper business in the United States," says Donald E. Graham, chairman of the Washington Post Co. "Carroll is Exhibit A as far as Jack's prowess. That was a very tough situation. It was by no means a given that the Los Angeles Times was going to come back the way they did, and they did--big time."

Carroll and his team fashioned a news report notable for its depth. It garnered Pulitzers this year for breaking-news reporting on the Southern California wildfires; national reporting on Wal-Mart's hard-knuckled business tactics; William Stall's editorials; Carolyn Cole's feature photography of war-torn Liberia; and Dan Neil's auto criticism.

Fuller cites Neil's victory as a quintessential example of a paper reflecting its community, calling a criticism award for an automobile writer "very L.A." While some Times staffers complain that Fuller should have attended the awards announcement, he says such a moment should be reserved for the newspaper, "not for the corporate guys... If they don't think that I'm proud of them, then they're wrong."

About two months after the Pulitzer announcement, Carroll learned Tribune was ordering cuts because of the ad revenue shortfall. On the morning of June 4, he called Dennis FitzSimons, a former broadcasting executive who rose to president and CEO of Tribune Co., adding the title of chairman in January. Carroll asked to meet FitzSimons in Chicago over the weekend. To Carroll's surprise, FitzSimons said he and Fuller would fly to California that afternoon.

Carroll drove himself and Baquet in his Jeep Cherokee to the Burbank Airport, and the foursome talked in a conference room there for about three hours.

They "listened to our case and made theirs," Baquet says. He doesn't recall anybody mentioning the Pulitzers, but he and Carroll did argue the cuts would hurt the paper's reputation and slow momentum.

Carroll, 62, a courtly leader who chooses his words carefully, says he was amenable to some cuts but concerned about the magnitude. "Obviously we didn't get what we wanted," he says, "but nobody slammed the door in our face."

The Times eliminated some 160 jobs--including 42 news staffers who took buyouts and 20 who were laid off--as well as 30 jobs at various business affiliates. The newsroom has lost about 100 positions since 2000 but still has slightly more than 1,000 staffers, an enviable roster by most newspaper standards.

The best possible interpretation of the cuts was that, in Baquet's words, the timing was "unfortunate and lousy." That timing spawned a rash of conspiracy theories inside and outside the Times. Some of the more virulent theories envision Tribune Co. sending a message about its indifference toward the Pulitzer victories, or revealing the beginnings of a presumed secret strategy to chip away at the paper, or perhaps to remake it into a Chicago Tribune replica.

"Lunacy," Tyner retorts. "If you make an acquisition that involves billions of dollars..you have to be completely off your head to then devalue them for some petty reason."

Ron Yates, dean of the College of Communications at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign and a former Chicago Tribune foreign and national correspondent, says he doesn't foresee Tribune Co. turning its papers into clones.

"There's enough autonomy there that those publications can stand on their own and do what they need to do to maintain quality and excellence," Yates says. "I don't think you're going to find the L.A. Times becoming Chicago Tribune West. That's not going to happen."

Puerner, a publisher who has earned rare respect from his newsroom, says the Times performed well in the year's first quarter, but in April he noticed significant shortfall in certain advertising categories, some unique to Southern California. Advertising benefited from the 2003 telecommunications wars, but consolidation resulted in fewer ads, as did an anemic period of movie openings.

"Unfortunately, and it's totally coincidental, this was also during a time the paper was being recognized, deservedly so," Puerner says. "I felt terrible because I knew we were going to have to make some expense cuts... No one felt worse about that than me."

Like Carroll and Baquet, Puerner made the case to Fuller and FitzSimons to maintain momentum. After some "give-and-take," he says, "the total expense reduction actually came down." Puerner concedes he "would have liked to cut less, but not a lot less, than what we finally cut," adding Tribune executives "have a better perspective as to what needs to happen in L.A. for us to do our share for the company as a whole." He says Tribune has supported his improvement efforts at the Times.

The paper also cut newshole, partly because of the economy and partly because of a rise in newsprint prices. Puerner says he hopes to reinvest in newshole when the economy improves.

The Times dropped about 30 pages a week, according to one editor, and the reduction appears likely to continue into 2005. A September staff memo from Sports Editor Bill Dwyre, obtained by the media gossip blog L.A. Observed, detailed cuts to reach "our mandated goal of a 14-page weekly reduction in the sports section," including the elimination of weekend TV listings, some football box scores and the daily fishing report.

The budget outlook appeared unlikely to improve anytime soon. "We're looking at a tight year," Carroll said in mid-November, as his paper finalized its 2005 budget.

Although Tribune stock dropped after the June cuts, Puerner and Fuller say systemic advertising weaknesses necessitated a reaction and waiting several quarters would have been far more damaging.

Kevin Sack, a former New York Times reporter who joined the L.A. Times in 2002 as an Atlanta-based national correspondent, worries the cuts might affect recruiting top talent to the Times and keeping it there. Concerned about Tribune's reputation for cost-cutting, Sack questioned Baquet and Carroll about the company before taking the job. "John and Dean were very reassuring," recalls Sack, who shared a 2003 Pulitzer for the L.A. Times. "They felt Tribune knew what it had in the L.A. Times and did not envision Tribune imposing major sacrifices on our newsgathering operations."

Although he feels the paper's management handled the June layoffs fairly and protected news operations as much as possible, Sack says, "It may make Dean and John's job more difficult in being able to persuade people, the way they persuaded me, that Tribune Co. would be supportive."

Carroll and Baquet acknowledge the cuts hurt and distracted the paper, and both admit to at least a fleeting thought about leaving. But Baquet decided "sometimes being a leader of a newspaper means you have to lead the paper through very hard times." And Carroll, on "sober reflection," felt he could continue to improve the Times. "If I can do [that], I'm here," he says. "They'll have to drive me away with a stick."

The duo says they have not tamped down their ambitions, and each offers a litany of recent changes. These include hiring Michael Kinsley, founding editor of the online magazine Slate and former editor of The New Republic, as editorial and opinion editor; moving Editorial Editor Janet Clayton to strengthen state and local news; and recruiting Vernon Loeb, a veteran Washington Post and Philadelphia Inquirer reporter, to build a California investigative team. That team is modeled after a Times investigative team in Washington headed by Deborah Nelson, another Post recruit.

Baquet and Carroll are proud that their front section is more than 90 percent staff-generated, although the Times uses marginally more copy from other Tribune papers in its features sections. "We regard our paper as an original voice," Carroll says. "We don't want it to be a replica of any other paper, even in part."

This spirited individualism has sparked some friction within the company. "There remains this whole issue of why the L.A. Times never uses anybody else's copy," Tyner says. "That's a source of considerable irritation amongst most of the other papers." Asked if Tribune has encouraged the Times to use more family copy, Tyner stares in disbelief. "Yes," he replies. "On numerous occasions and at numerous levels."

James O'Shea, managing editor of the Chicago Tribune, perceives a "legitimate difference of opinion." While Carroll believes nearly every story in his news section should be staff-generated, O'Shea has a different view. "I think I owe my readers the best story I can give them. If that's from the Chicago Tribune, and it usually is, great. But if it's from the L.A. Times, I'm going to give them the L.A. Times story."

In one instance, Jan Crawford Greenburg, the Chicago Tribune's respected Supreme Court correspondent, landed an exclusive interview with Justice Sandra Day O'Connor the day after a landmark affirmative-action ruling. The Times declined to publish the story. Such perceived slights have fostered resentment among some that "the L.A. Times wouldn't use our copy; they didn't think it was good enough," O'Shea says, adding he rejects that interpretation.

Despite frustration elsewhere in the company, no one has ordered the Times to use more Tribune stories. Whenever Times leaders meet with other editors or Tribune executives, "everybody says, 'We wish you guys would use more stuff,'" Baquet says. "Nobody's ever said, 'You've got to use more stuff.'"

Baquet sees value in having L.A. Times stories run in other Tribune properties. California, a safe state for the Democrats, was largely ignored in the presidential race, but Florida--home to two sister papers--was coveted by both parties. When Times White House stories appear in those papers, it helps Baquet's reporters with access.

The Times is the leading "exporter" of copy, providing nearly half of family stories used across the newspaper group, according to Kern's 2002 study. The Baltimore Sun's A section vaguely resembles an East Coast edition of the Times because it frequently uses Times copy, particularly in rounding out foreign coverage. Editors at each paper decide which stories to post on an internal Tribune Web site and which of their sister papers' articles to run.

The Times is "a world-class newspaper," Kern says, and it's "only natural to expect they would probably supply more than they would import." He adds, "They have to be the ones that make the judgment about what's valuable to them."

Kern and other Tribune executives hope the papers will cooperate even more after their Washington journalists move in together. Kern, who is handling many details of that move, wants it to foster "independent and unique newspapers that are also linked."

O'Shea heads a managing editors committee addressing the bureaus' fears and priorities; he is working closely with Baquet, whom he has known since Baquet's days at the Chicago Tribune. Washington correspondents at two former Times Mirror papers, the Hartford Courant and Allentown, Pennsylvania's Morning Call, already have joined the Chicago Tribune, the Sun-Sentinel, the Orlando Sentinel and the Daily Press of Newport News, Virginia, in a bustling downtown bureau known as the "Tribune Media Center." The bureau also houses a 15-person broadcasting staff that provides 20 to 30 live shots daily for Tribune television stations.

Managing editors agreed to some separation of bureaus in the new facility. "Until somebody shows us a better way, we would all endorse some kind of a wall," O'Shea says, adding he's open to other options if the architect provides them. "We want the individual identity of these major papers preserved."

O'Shea's committee also tackled Fuller's instructions to shave staff. Fuller announced the 10 percent cut to his papers' leaders in April. They were assembled for a meeting of the American Society of Newspaper Editors in Washington, where Carroll received that organization's Award for Editorial Leadership.

During an interview in early September, Fuller pledged an "enormous and imposing" bureau would symbolize Tribune's commitment to Washington. He said he ordered the cut to signal he wanted "something different and more efficient," and it's "important that the message be a whole message."

Editors decided the decrease would not affect smaller papers with only one or two Washington correspondents, such as the Morning Call or the Sun-Sentinel. Instead, larger papers would shoulder cuts proportionally, probably through attrition or moving staff. The Times' bureau--with 58 staffers, 38 of them reporters--is two to three times larger than any other, and under the original plan likely would have absorbed the largest hit. Discussions at AJR's deadline called for a reduction at the Times bureau of six positions, including three lost during the buyouts, through attrition or relocating staff over the next year.

A few weeks after Fuller's announcement, he called Baquet to say he knew Baquet was concerned and invited him to Chicago to talk. (The two had been colleagues at the Tribune.)

"I don't like the idea of anybody outside of Los Angeles telling us how to run our newspaper," Baquet says of Tribune's first instructions to trim staff from a specific location. He and Carroll had expanded the Washington bureau after 9/11 and had planned eventually to move some staffers back to L.A. While he doesn't "like being dictated to that way," he says, "it's not inconsistent with what I wanted to do anyway."

Over lunch at an Italian restaurant near the Tribune Tower, Baquet asked Fuller whether this was a first step toward merging the Washington bureaus. No, Fuller said. Baquet asked if the Times would have to give up any significant beats. Again, Fuller said no.

"Jack has said to me that it's to everybody's advantage for the Los Angeles Times to maintain a big, powerful, competitive, full-service bureau," Baquet says. "I left Chicago feeling much better."

But talk of further cuts arose during a meeting among publishers in late September, the period when Tribune newspapers begin to prepare budgets for the upcoming year.

"This, frankly, was more the initiative of the smaller publishers," O'Shea said in October. "They asked of myself and Dean, 'Would you change the way you operate to serve us better?'" O'Shea, who was not at the meeting, notes that his bureau works on Midwest deadlines, Baquet's on West Coast deadlines. Publishers wanted to know if the two papers might better accommodate East Coast deadlines so other bureaus "could cut more."

The University of Illinois' Yates predicts a shared Washington bureau would "impact the coverage and uniqueness" of Tribune's newspapers and "the ultimate result is that readers will not be as well served."

Even before the move takes place, Newsday's Washington bureau chief, Timothy M. Phelps, is relying on other Tribune newspapers to free his staff for more original reporting. "It's one thing to have to rely on the AP," he says. "It's another knowing we have the L.A. Times and the Baltimore Sun to back us up."

Phelps has not filled a vacancy in his bureau for a Supreme Court correspondent, in part because the Times and the Chicago Tribune have two of the industry's best, David Savage and Jan Crawford Greenburg, respectively. Phelps, who distinguished himself on that beat at Newsday by breaking the Clarence Thomas-Anita Hill story, says, "We haven't felt it necessary to have somebody over there full time."

He also has not filled a State Department opening, instead creating a homeland-security beat and a national-security investigative beat. Phelps fills in at the State Department on issues involving the Middle East, a subject that greatly interests his readers. "We're trying to be smart about how we deploy our staff and to do so in ways that have meaning to our readers in New York City and Long Island," Phelps says.

While a whiff of nostalgia for Times Mirror wafts through the newsroom at the L.A. Times, it is strikingly absent from the Times' sister paper in Melville, the geographic center of sprawling Long Island about an hour east of New York City. On July 16, 1995, Willes shuttered New York Newsday, eliminating more than 800 jobs and crippling the paper's drive into New York City.

"There was no love left for the Times Mirror Co. when they closed New York Newsday," says Phyllis Singer, assistant managing editor for content development. "That was just a direct hit to the heart."

The defining episode between Tribune Co. and its third-largest paper--and the one with the most serious consequences--has been the deepening circulation scandal and the fallout on Wall Street and among Newsday's advertisers.

A September 10 Tribune press release put 2003 daily circulation between 480,000 and 490,000--a staggering concession that daily sales had been inflated by up to 100,000 copies, more than twice Newsday's estimate in June when it first admitted misstatements. The September release estimated Sunday circulation figures between 570,000 and 580,000. It quoted Fuller attributing inflated numbers to "poor documentation, records mismanagement and programs that deliberately violated" policies of Tribune and the Audit Bureau of Circulations, the industry group that monitors circulation.

Tribune has acknowledged inflated figures at Newsday dating back to 2001; Newsday's reporters have interviewed people saying it dates back to at least the late 1990s.

The inflation "has reached amazing proportions," and revised figures have "essentially reduced Newsday back to its circulation in the late '70s," industry analyst Morton says.

As expectations of major cuts gripped the newsroom, Newsday announced the resignation of Editor Howard Schneider. Publisher Timothy Knight tapped another longtime Newsday figure as his replacement: John Mancini, who has worked off and on at the tabloid since 1980 and has spent the past three years overseeing its New York City edition.

"Over the past few weeks, Howie Schneider and I have had discussions regarding the future of Newsday," Knight said in a statement. "It became apparent that we have basic differences in how best to position Newsday for the future. In recognition of that, he has made the decision to step down as editor of Newsday."

On November 9, Schneider's last day at the paper, he told me, without elaborating, "I can't lead the paper in a direction that I don't believe in," and said, "My disagreement with the publisher is not about one thing." Newsday sources described the looming job cuts as one of several disputes between the two men. Some suggested Knight also wanted a faster-paced, livelier paper.

Mancini told me the paper's mission will remain the same: "to be the primary news source for people who live on Long Island and increasingly make that true in New York City." He described the cuts as unpleasant but added, "We are not going to devastate the paper. This is not a slash-and-burn process."

Asked about his vision for Newsday, Mancini said: "There's no loss in being bold in today's media landscape, where there's so much coming at people and so much competition for readers' time."

In February, under Schneider and former Publisher Raymond Jansen, Newsday launched a redesign aimed at more closely associating the paper and Web site, making the tabloid easier to navigate and attracting younger readers.

Schneider also had accommodated Tribune Co.'s desire that the paper embrace the "Your Money" section. Newsday already had a strong personal finance section, and he initially told Kern his paper didn't need the new offering. "It became clearer as things went on that we needed to do this, that the company felt strongly about [it] and wanted us to do it," Schneider says. "It was clear we were expected to be on board." He and Kern talked, and Kern said, "'Howie, can you find a way to make this work, to modify it for your market? We really need it for New York,'" Schneider recounts.

He and his staff ultimately relabeled some pages in their personal finance section "Your Money" and reviewed possible content on an "à la carte" basis, using some for a new finance tips page. Newsday also made stories available to "Your Money" editors, as do the Times and other papers.

Like the Times, Newsday had absorbed staff cuts over the past year even before the November shakeup. It laid off 26 non-newsroom employees in January. On June 29, the paper reported that about 40 staffers in the newsroom and production units had taken voluntary buyouts, and six in other departments had been laid off.

"Newsday for a generation was widely considered to be one of the great newspapers in the country," when Bill Moyers was publisher and for two decades afterward, says Steven Knowlton, a journalism professor at Hofstra University on Long Island.

Knowlton believes it's still a good paper with a talented staff that includes Laurie Garrett, perhaps the nation's best science and medical reporter. But it's "not the paper it used to be by most of the quantifiable measures," he says. "It doesn't seem to have the newshole; it doesn't seem to have the investigative spirit" it once did.

But Newsday has offered spirited and aggressive coverage of the circulation scandal--Schneider called its reporting on that issue "a litmus test for what kind of newspaper we are." On July 19, in a 3,992-word article, a team of Newsday reporters detailed improper circulation practices, including claims of delivering papers to customers who had died or whose homes had been destroyed by fire.

The same day, the company announced the abrupt resignation of longtime Publisher Jansen and of Louis Sito, publisher of Hoy, the Spanish-language paper Newsday launched in 1998 (see "Dismantling the Language Barrier," October/November 2003). Sito also once directed circulation, advertising and distribution at both papers.

Jansen, who had planned to retire at the end of the year, has described the transgressions as the work of a "rogue operation" in the circulation department, a view he reiterated in August at the On Parade Diner in Woodbury, Long Island. "There isn't a publisher in the country that looks at that detail of numbers..certainly not [at] a newspaper the size of Newsday," he says. "Any publisher that gets trapped down in that level of detail is probably missing a lot of the big picture."

Newsday reported that at a July 21 staff meeting a reporter questioned whether Tribune's quest for profits contributed to the wrongdoing. Jansen emphatically rejects any such linkage. "Everybody looks for a villain," he says. "The villain is not Tribune's excessive demands. In fact, they are very reasonable." While Tribune Publishing has to achieve growth, it doesn't set goals for circulation, advertising, staffing or newsroom budgets--anything "those in the industry are paranoid about." Jansen adds, "There was never one single discussion on a circulation number with Tribune, or for that matter, with Times Mirror before Tribune."

Knight, Newsday's former president, replaced Jansen. At 39, he is a first-time publisher. He handled many details of the Times Mirror merger and joined Newsday as general manager in 2003.

Analyst Morton says Tribune has been "forthright" in addressing the scandal. "This too shall pass," he says, although "they won't be making as much money at Newsday as they had hoped."

Some 200 miles south of Melville, Newsday's sister paper in Baltimore has endured a rocky period under Tribune ownership. Acrimonious labor negotiations in the summer of 2003 were followed by the January firing of esteemed Editor William K. Marimow and June buyouts just as the new editor, Tim Franklin, was trying to reassure his jittery staff.

Publisher Denise Palmer says the Sun--which reported a Sunday circulation through September of 454,045 and average daily sales of 270,113--lags behind other Tribune papers in ad revenue growth and profit margin. In an April 15 conference call, Tribune executives said they expected performance to improve.

Some current and former staffers believe this drive for greater profits threatens the character and ambitions of a paper they regarded as much more than a strong regional daily. At least until this year, they viewed the Sun as a sophisticated heavyweight with distinguished national and international reporting and hard-hitting investigations and criticism.

"If you ask someone what has the Baltimore Sun gained from being owned by Tribune, it's very hard to come up with anything positive," says Scott Shane, a respected longtime Sun reporter who left in August to join the New York Times' Washington bureau.

During tumultuous labor negotiations, Tribune--long viewed as tough on unions--spent up to $3 million on strike preparations, according to executives' estimates in a July 2003 investor conference call. These preparations included training replacement workers from other Tribune papers.

A source familiar with the negotiations says Tribune ordered the nonunion L.A. Times to send replacement workers "voluntarily." The Times was "not supposed to force people, but it was expected that there would be volunteers," the source says, adding the union's acceptance of a contract spared the Times from acting.

Then, on Tuesday, January 6, 2004, Palmer shocked her staff by announcing Marimow's abrupt departure in an e-mail message. Franklin, the personable editor of the Orlando Sentinel, would replace him that day.

Palmer, a former Tribune Co. auditor and president of CLTV, Tribune's cable news channel in Chicago, joined the Sun--in her first publishing job--in September 2002 (see Bylines, September 2002). One of her goals was to make the paper easier for readers

to navigate. "I don't mean in any way that you lighten up the content," she says, but she wanted to facilitate finding stories and advertising. She also hoped to showcase photography and strengthen presentation, improve sports coverage and make content "more relevant" to readers.

Marimow, 57, won two Pulitzers for investigative reporting at the Philadelphia Inquirer and served as the Sun's managing editor, becoming editor in 2000 when Carroll departed for the Times. A Sun article describing Marimow's firing quoted Palmer as saying, "It is about personality, fit, style."

Elaborating during a September interview in her third-floor corner office, Palmer says she and Marimow differed "primarily about where I thought we needed to go with the paper and not feeling like we were in sync about that... I really wanted an editor that was very holistic about the paper," examining every aspect and making it relevant, useful and entertaining. She says Marimow was "definitely more of a hard-news editor," although she quickly adds that hard news is still vital to the paper.

Marimow, who in May became one of two managing editors at National Public Radio, declined to comment for this article. But friends and former associates say he was shocked by Palmer's decision, relayed to him on Monday, January 5.

Although Palmer's very public firing of Marimow sparked criticism inside and outside the Sun, she says in hindsight she is still comfortable with her approach. Fuller says Marimow's dismissal was "handled OK" and "there's no good and graceful, easy way of handling that kind of move."

Fuller signed off on Palmer's decision: Publishers cannot fire editors without his approval. "There's no more important relationship in a newspaper than the editor and the publisher," Fuller says. "It has to be one of mutual confidence, easy communication." He says "that relationship didn't develop between Denise and Bill... He's a wonderful journalist, but the relationship didn't work."

Tyner says Palmer wanted a change. "I don't think that Bill was ever terribly supportive of working with the other Tribune papers," he says. "That was a pretty significant thing..the degree of support for what we were trying to do."

Palmer consulted Fuller and Tyner about possible replacements. Franklin surfaced on both their lists, she says, and received great references from his publisher at the Sentinel.

Franklin, 44, first heard from Palmer in late October 2003 in a casual conversation lasting about five minutes; the two met in Orlando in early December. He knew Palmer slightly from his days in various associate managing editor jobs at the Chicago Tribune.

Franklin liked his Orlando job, where he was perhaps best known for leading a successful bid to obtain autopsy photos of race car driver Dale Earnhardt. He asked Palmer about her commitment and that of Tribune to the Sun. "I have no desire to preside over the dismantling of this paper" or the "slow peeling away of quality," he told me over lunch in the Sun cafeteria.

Franklin was impressed by the Sun's emphasis on enterprise and investigative reporting but thought other areas could improve. He wanted to update the paper's retro design from a decade ago, improve the mix of front-page stories and add more popular culture to the features sections. He thought the business section sometimes felt "unplugged" from the regional business community.

Palmer offered him the job over the Christmas holidays. He bid goodbye to his Orlando staff at 10:30 a.m. on January 6, then flew to Baltimore.

The Sun staff "was understandably shell-shocked," Franklin says, and his first few weeks were tough. Many staffers viewed Marimow as a newsroom defender who opposed layoffs and feared Franklin was a corporate agent amenable to slashing costs. For "the first time maybe since I started my career as a reporter," Franklin says, "I felt like I had to prove my journalistic credentials again."

During Franklin's first year at the Sun, he created a full-time investigative team of four reporters and two editors and designated "franchise" coverage areas: national security, the Chesapeake Bay, the Baltimore regional economy, education, science and medicine.

He is planning a redesign of the paper, scheduled for unveiling next fall. He recruited Randy Harvey from the L.A. Times to head the sports section, which now has a full-time Washington sportswriter and GameDay, a Monday NFL section.

Franklin created a news digest on page two of the A section to highlight top stories and help readers navigate the paper. He freed space by moving the "Sun Journal"--a flexible daily spot launched by Carroll for anything from slice-of-life international features to Q&A explorations of complex Washington issues--to page four and reducing it to four days a week, a decision that sparked some unhappiness in the newsroom. Franklin says he was concerned that "as good as the 'Sun Journal' was the vast majority of the time, it was uneven... This is not a signal of abandoning in-depth journalism."

He acknowledges staffers have raised questions about whether the "Your Money" section--which Marimow had agreed to add before he arrived--signals the beginning of homogenous sections under Tribune. Sources familiar with discussions over that section, which Palmer wanted to include, say previous Sun editors had hoped to customize content for Baltimore readers to give it a more local feel. Franklin argues the "evolving" section gives the Sun three or four pages of personal-finance content it didn't have a year ago and the format suits the topic.

Just as Franklin felt he was gaining some momentum, Palmer informed him about the June cuts. Franklin, who told reporters he felt "kneecapped" by the development, says 16 people in the newsroom and about a dozen in other departments accepted buyouts. The Sun also trimmed newshole nearly 4 percent, although it's adding some back for GameDay and for two new sections, on health and science and on the workplace.

Franklin says the budget "will be a bit tighter next year" but does not anticipate buyouts or layoffs in the newsroom. In mid-November, he predicted he could accomplish needed tightening outside core news operations, possibly by trimming some comics and stock tables. He also described himself as "reasonably optimistic" his Washington bureau would not suffer a major hit. "I don't think we'll have a cut as deep as 50 percent in the bureau, based on the conversations I've had recently," Franklin said, adding his bureau would emphasize enterprise reporting more in the future.

Over the past year, the Sun has seen an exodus of talent and experience through the buyouts and other voluntary departures. Besides Shane, the roughly three dozen journalists who have left include investigative reporter Wally Roche, who joined the Washington bureau of the L.A. Times; features reporter Larry Bingham, who went to Portland's Oregonian; police reporter Del Quentin Wilber, now at the Washington Post; and media writer David Folkenflik, who joined Marimow at NPR. Managing Editor Tony Barbieri took early retirement; respected editors Jan Winburn and Rebecca Corbett also left.

Franklin says he's lost some staff with a lot of institutional knowledge that he didn't want to lose. But "if you look at the people we've hired over the past few months, it's a pretty damn impressive list," he says, mentioning Harvey; Bernie Kohn of the Washington Post, the Sun's new assistant managing editor for business; Fred Schulte, a respected investigative reporter from the Sun-Sentinel--and AJR's former assistant managing editor, Jill Rosen.

Franklin has hired about 20 journalists this year. Sheila Young, who handles the Sun's newsroom budget, expects the newsroom to reach its ceiling of 363 staffers by year's end. (Marimow had agreed late last year to reduce staff from 381 to 368 through attrition; the paper lost additional positions during the buyouts.) Young recalls about 400 newsroom positions when she began her current job in April 2001.

In October, Franklin named Robert Blau, the Chicago Tribune's associate managing editor for projects and investigations, as the Sun's new managing editor. Blau's résumé includes editing the Tribune's 2001 Pulitzer-winning series about frustrations of air travel, but some Sun staffers wondered whether his arrival signaled a further "Tribunization" of their paper.

Franklin says he understands the connotations but wants to build the Sun's well-deserved reputation for enterprise and investigative reporting.

Jim Keat, a former Sun assistant managing editor who still lives in Baltimore, sees Blau's appointment as a sign the Sun is going after "Projects with a capital P, which is code for Prizes with a capital P." There's nothing wrong with that, Keat says, "unless you're robbing resources from something else in your bread-and-butter coverage. A newspaper's first job is to cover its community. We'll just have to wait and see."

Keat already has noticed a decrease in community coverage from a year ago, when he felt some very good neighborhood reporting and improving city coverage were happening under Marimow's direction. "Baltimore County coverage is still disgracefully bad--that's been true for years," he adds.

Overall, he feels daily coverage is good, and he's pleased to see Sun reporters traveling on big national stories, such as the summer hurricanes in Florida. He thinks staff departures will take some time to affect news coverage noticeably but the loss of so much local knowledge will show over time.

Charles Flippen, who chairs the department of mass communication and communication studies at Towson University in Maryland, also thinks the Sun remains a good paper. "The major change that concerns me is the reduction of staff," he says. He senses coverage is a bit thinner, and "whenever you thin your staff, you run the risk of not giving as thorough coverage as you might."

Despite budget pressures, the Sun's new editor says he has spared no expense in blanketing big stories from the Abu Ghraib prison abuse scandal to the drug conspiracy indictment of Ravens star running back Jamal Lewis, who pleaded guilty in October.

"There's a difference between doing journalism on the cheap and doing journalism efficiently," says Franklin, who also was editor of the Indianapolis Star and returned to Tribune soon after Gannett bought that paper. "Tribune falls in the latter category, not the former."

The fate of the former Times Mirror properties will show whether or not Franklin is right.

Orville Schell, dean of the Graduate School of Journalism at the University of California, Berkeley, says he knows Tribune cuts forced the Times' Carroll to let people go and to hire more slowly than he would like. And yet, Schell says, the paper "keeps getting better and better. With those two trends, which are seemingly contrary, can the paper continue to excel and to improve? I don't know. But I do think something about the L.A. Times has really gelled. It looks good; it reads well; it's interesting, and I think they have some of the best sections in the country--Op-Ed, Sunday Opinion, book review, entertainment. Their news overseas and otherwise is also excellent."

He adds: "It's when you both cut back and meddle that I think you run into trouble." Tribune has "done a pretty good job of allowing the Times leadership to do what they want to do."

Told of the shared Washington bureau and the cooperative endeavors, Susan E. Tifft, a journalism and public policy professor at Duke University and coauthor of "The Trust: The

Private and Powerful Family Behind The New York Times," wonders whether a day of "buffet journalism" is approaching. Papers might focus on their strengths and "maybe rely on sister papers for other things."

What concerns her, she says, is that the papers in Tribune's stable are "some of the best in the country. They've got the L.A. Times; they've got the Chicago Tribune. There's a real journalistic strength in keeping the competitive juices flowing."

Former Newsday Editor Howard Schneider, who posed the three questions for measuring Tribune's stewardship, sounded less optimistic when he left in the fall than he did over the summer. On whether individual papers can retain distinctive personalities, he says, "I would hope Newsday continues to be Newsday." On whether economy-of-scale initiatives will limit editors' flexibility, he replies that "What happens in Washington will be a kind of early measure of how that plays out."

On the larger question of sufficient resources, he replied during an August interview in his office that the evidence is "uncertain." Asked whether the paper can achieve great journalism under Tribune ownership, he replied, "one of the keys here is going to be the definition of 'great.'" When he left the tabloid where he had worked so long, he added, "I'm less hopeful."

A January 1 leadership change in Tribune's publishing group presents yet another unknown for the former Times Mirror papers. Fuller's retirement, announced in late October, takes effect at the end of December. His replacement is Scott Smith, the former Chicago Tribune publisher who became chief operating officer for Tribune Publishing on November 1. Unlike Fuller, Smith rose through the business side, serving as chief financial officer and then heading strategic planning, acquisitions and new venture investments. He was publisher of the Sun-Sentinel and then of the Chicago Tribune.

If Tribune Co. succeeds in allocating resources more efficiently and intelligently, it will show skeptical journalists that robust profitability and superior journalism can coexist and provide a model for the industry to emulate.

But evidence over the past year is less encouraging. So far, the Times has prospered journalistically and forged an independent path, but continued cuts could hamper its ambitions and excellence. Budget cuts have shaken the Sun, and the circulation scandal at Newsday has rocked the newsroom there.

Tribune's drive toward shared resources risks reducing competition among some of the nation's best newspapers. And a planned 10 percent cut in the new Washington bureau quickly became far more substantial, jeopardizing long traditions of distinguished Washington journalism at the Sun and Newsday.

If "allocating resources more wisely" becomes a euphemism for eliminating them, then the Times Mirror treasures will be tarnished, and a bitter parting shot from the "Cereal Killer" will stand as a prophecy.

Research for this article was supported by a grant from the Fund for Investigative Journalism.