Thursday, October 05, 2006

Is New Los Angeles Times Publisher - David Hiller - The Best Of All Possible Worlds?

While not wanting to put too much of a Panglossian... gloss... on the situation - it is possible that what happened today is the best possible thing that could have happened to the Los Angeles Times.

But, first a word about the dead.

Jeff Johnson knew he would likely be fired when he publicly backed Dean Baquet in refusing to make the staff cuts the Tribune headquarters had ordered. But he still made his stand with Dean. He came here a dyed in the Brooks Brotthers suit company man - but left the Los Angeles Times a genuine journalistic hero.

Now for the good news.

Every person I know in Chicago has nothing but not just good - but great things to say about David Hiller. And while he can not be expected to go native as fast as Jeff Johnson did, with the LAT's staff's suspicion and anger towards the Tribune right now - it is impossible for Hiller to start his tenure with the massive cuts that had been previously demanded of Johnson.

Additionally, Hiller has a lot more leverage with Chicago than Johnson ever did. Hiller led their showcase property and is rumored headed towards running the entire show.

He is not expendable. He can not be fired as easily as was Johnson. So if he decides that these proposed cuts will hurt more than they will help - he is in a lot stronger postion to enforce his opinion.

Michael A. Hiltzik
Times Staff Writer

October 6, 2006

... Hiller, 53, is described by friends and former colleagues as a personable, funny and intellectually engaged executive who understands journalistic traditions. But he is not shy about stating that the challenge for newspapers is to do "the absolute best job you can for readers and online customers and still be a strong business."

In the industry's quest to balance economic concerns, investor demands and journalistic mandates, Hiller now occupies one of the hot seats. The Chicago native and Harvard-trained attorney took over Thursday as publisher of the Los Angeles Times, following the resignation of Jeffrey M. Johnson, who had publicly questioned the strategy of parent Tribune Co.


Hiller has been a rising star at Tribune, most recently occupying the publisher's chair at the Chicago Tribune after serving as senior vice president for development and subsequently as head of Tribune Interactive, where he was responsible for the company's Internet strategy.

His background has been varied, including a stint as law clerk to Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart, two years at the Reagan Justice Department (where his colleagues included current Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. and former New York Mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani) and work as a lawyer at the Chicago firm Sidley & Austin, where his assignments included first fighting, then settling, the landmark federal antitrust case against AT&T that resulted in the telecommunications giant's 1984 breakup.


Along the way, Hiller acquired a cadre of admiring colleagues and devoted friends.

"He's a man with catholic interests," said John Zeglis, a former partner at Sidley & Austin who later became AT&T's general counsel and then chief executive of AT&T Wireless.

Hiller, Zeglis and several friends kept up an annual tradition of backpacking in the Rockies or other wilderness areas at which Hiller characteristically displayed the campcraft he learned as an Eagle Scout and maintained the group's travel journal.

"We'd notice that he'd read newspapers cover to cover, even before he got into that business," Zeglis recalled...


At the Chicago Tribune, where he became publisher in November 2004, Hiller quickly became a familiar figure in the newsroom — not the most natural haunt for a publisher. He arrived on election night that year and spent hours observing the operation at a time when a newsroom is at its most frenzied, and later sponsored a series of well-appreciated brown-bag lunches for staff members at which "no questions were off-limits," said Tribune Editor Ann Marie Lipinski.

"We didn't always see eye to eye on things, but he was comfortable with disagreement," Lipinski added.

Whether, or how much, Hiller will stand between The Times newsroom and what newsroom employees see as Tribune Co.'s unrelenting demand for cost cuts is unclear. Tribune editors note that his engaging personality and his sensitivity to newsroom culture don't obscure the fact that he is unmistakably a corporate manager.

"At the end of the day, he's a business guy," said one newsroom executive who asked not to be named. "On budget issues, he'll make the decisions he has to make as part of management."

That said, a Tribune newsroom source noted that in reducing costs, Hiller tended to try to avoid cutting personnel, instead seeking operational savings elsewhere, "and that was appreciated by the staff...

Now there are those at the Times who feel that this change is merely a short term turnaround to put some lipstick on the pig by cutting costs, raising net income - and then selling the LA Times.

But I don't think so.

I can not imagine the Tribune selling the Times when it brings in the revenue it still commands nor can I imagine David Hiller taking this job if it was just to conduct a close out sale.

Under Johnson, Baquet and Martinez - the Times has dramatically improved in the past two years. Now with a publisher with more clout in Chicago at the helm and one willing to explore more ways for the paper to engage the public along with more creative ways of cutting costs - he just might be the person to not just finish turning around the LA Times creatively, but also - finally - financially.

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