L.A. prepares for life without a 'local' paper

Sale of Los Angeles Times to a newspaper chain means owners are in Chicago.

With a stack of newspapers on his lap and morning beverage in hand, John Lee voices the worry echoing from street to boardroom across Los Angeles's patchwork metropolis.

"I am concerned about the coverage of local news for a newspaper owned by a corporation 2,000 miles away," says the computer programmer and avid reader of the Los Angeles Times. "My fear is that because of more emphasis on bottom-line profits, we'll have fewer locally derived stories and the diversity of coverage will suffer."

The comment from a corner cafe mirrors doubts across the US concerning this week's sale of the Los Angeles Times and its parent company to the owner of the Chicago Tribune.

Here, people are worried about the future of the Times's commitment to outreach programs such as skid-row literacy drives and school-reading projects. And among editors and media analysts both at the Times and nationwide, many are wondering whether the change will usher in new policies ranging from what topics do and don't get covered to cutbacks of foreign and domestic bureaus.

How the Tribune Co. answers these questions will chart the course for an institution that has been a fixture of the southern California community for more than a century, and has now become one of the most respected media outlets in America.

"Because of the unique place the Los Angeles Times holds in the cultural history of the city, the specifics of this merger make it one of the most compelling media consolidations in an era marked by the increase of such deals," says Roy Clark, senior scholar for the Poynter Institute, a school for journalists in St. Petersburg, Fla.

Big city, no local paper

The $6.46 billion transaction, if approved, will create the nation's third-largest newspaper company, and make Los Angeles the largest city in the country without a locally owned newspaper. For many, this comes as a shock, considering the Times had been owned by the same locally based family for 119 years.

"It is as if someone told me the Pacific Ocean had been sold," says Patt Morrison, a columnist who has been writing for the paper since she was 17. "The L.A. Times has been integral to the life and landscape of this city for almost as long as there has been a city of Los Angeles."

But more broadly, beyond the day-to-day operation of the paper, industry watchers say there are reasons for optimism. The purchase of the L.A. Times represents the merging of two top-quality journalism organizations. By contrast, Time Inc. and ABC-TV were bought by America Online and Disney, which don't have histories in news.

"It wasn't sold to a movie studio or entertainment company, and that is critically important," says Tom Rosenstiel, director of the Project for Excellence in Journalism in Washington.

The Tribune Co. owns 22 television stations and 10 other newspapers. The company has a wide reputation for stringent cost controls and annual profits that far exceed the industry average. Its flagship newspaper, the Chicago Tribune, is widely recognized as one of the country's top five.

The merger would make the Tribune Co. the third-largest newspaper chain in America, after Gannett and Knight Ridder. While this sheer size worries some observers, others say the Tribune Co. has a good track record in managing satellite papers.

"It has shown you can have a philosophy that generates meaningful corporate involvement and connection, while still giving appropriate autonomy to the local newspaper or TV," says Bob Steele, director of the ethics program at the Poynter Institute.

Exactly what constitutes "appropriate autonomy" is likely to be the source of debate as the merger goes forward. In some instances, critics say, having a newspaper's executives based locally is vital.

"When the LAPD complained that the Times got its facts wrong, they used to sit down with the local Times people and hash things out," says Jill Stewart, columnist for New Times Los Angeles and a former writer for the Times. "What do they do now? E-mail it to Chicago?"

In an effort to boost profits, Times officials say layoffs are likely among the 170 members of Times Mirror corporate headquarters - but less likely among staff at Times Mirror papers.

Profit margins at Times Mirror are currently in the mid-to-high teens. They're in the low-to-mid 30s at the Tribune Co.

"Many of the functions that we have at Times Mirror and the Tribune are redundant, so ... I expect there will be significant reductions in corporate staff," says Times publisher Kathyrn Downing.

Ties to the city

Known as a major civic booster from its founding in 1881, the Times has played a major factor in the development of Los Angeles. Before the rise of industry and the universities, it was a cultural lodestar, defining the city.

Then in 1960, Otis Chandler took over as publisher with the goal of making it a world-class newspaper. He succeeded by most accounts, and many Los Angelenos want to make sure the paper doesn't lose that distinction.

Most analysts here say local market forces will ensure that the L.A. Times continues to be a vibrant, viable paper that reflects the diversity of the region. But its model may move away from that of a nationally oriented metropolitan daily like The New York Times, toward more of a community-oriented paper in the style of the Chicago Tribune.

"The L.A. Times has very self-consciously modeled itself after The New York Times, while the Chicago Tribune has not," says Mr. Rosenstiel. "[The Tribune's] style is to aim for more market penetration locally than The New York Times, which sells half its circulation [outside] of New York."

How might this affect the paper?

"It's too early to tell if this is ultimately positive or negative," says California historian Kevin Starr. "But [the Tribune Co.] can't manipulate the product too much without endangering sales to the local population."

*James Blair contributed to this report.

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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