Explaining Southern California's economy

LA Times gets fourth editor since 2005

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Los Angeles Times building in Downtown LA

I got in just in time today to discover that the Los Angeles Times continues to be a paper where top editors don't last very long anymore. Russ Stanton, who had been the paper's editor since 2007, "will step down," according to the LAT's own story. His successor is Davan Maharaj, currently the managing editor, who's been with the paper for 22 years. 

Maharaj is the LAT's 15th editor but its fourth since 2005. What's been abbreviating the tenure of the paper's top editors? Problems with Tribune Company management. In 2005, confronted with cost-cutting demands, former Baltimore Sun editor John Carroll left, later to resurface at Harvard's Kennedy School. 

Next up, former New York Timesman Dean Baquet — a Carroll hire — had a famous and by some accounts heroic standoff with Tribune over newsroom cuts. He went down and his by-then sympathetic publisher, Jeffrey Johnson, went with him. Baquet is now back at the New York Times. 

Tribune is based in Chicago and also owns the Chicago Tribune. The next guy in the hot seat was James O'Shea, imported from the Windy City to LA in early 2008, not long after real estate tycoon Sam Zell had bought Tribune Co. almost entirely with debt. Bankruptcy was declared by the end of the year. Things went so well for O'Shea that he wrote a scathing tell-all about his experiences, "The Deal from Hell."

Stanton then got the nod. He was viewed as a champion of the LAT's surging online operations, but of course he also had to deal with all the joys of further staff cuts and the bankruptcy, from which Tribune still hasn't emerged (the latest wrinkle in the three-year saga involves a dispute between senior and junior creditors).

People continue to want, evidently, to be the editor of the LA Times, but if history is any guide, this has become the toughest job in journalism. The key issue is that big-city newspapers are in structural decline. They can't do much about their fixed costs — paper, printing, putting the paper on trucks and driving it to newsstands — but their revenues and circulation are declining. And their core business — gathering and aggregating the news — has been massively disrupted by the internet.

Craigslist took the classified ads. And even though the LA Times has been fairly successful at establishing its digital presence, the online business still can't match print for profits — and may never. It obviously didn't help that many papers gave away their online content and have lately begun instituting paywalls in an effort to claw it back and block out the online aggregators that have feasted on the free stuff and, like the Huffington Post, created multi-million dollar valuations.

No one is immune to this, although small-market papers that specialize in local news have a somewhat brighter future. Even the august New York Time Company had to take a $250 million loan, at a whopping 14-percent interest, from Mexican billionaire Carlos Slim in 2009, when the financial crisis was raging. It's out of those woods now, but its stock has nonetheless been trading below $10 for most of the year.

Yesterday, Lee Enterprises, publisher of 48 daily papers, joined Tribune in bankruptcy. Lee doesn't have anywhere near the liabilities that Tribune brought into Chapter 11. But it does have a billion in debt that it can no longer service.

Any new LA Times editor inherits these challenges plus the Tribune bankruptcy, which has stretched on twice as long as expected (three years, versus the more typical year and a half). It isn't quite in Delphi or Hostess Brands territory yet, but it's definitely notable for its duration. It's effectively preventing a reorganized Tribune, owned by its senior creditors, from either selling the paper or giving it a private-equity-style management makeover, perhaps with an eye toward upping its value and selling it later.

Meanwhile, there's evidently been pressure on existing management to make some numbers this year.

One thing is for sure: given the way that the newspaper business has been going over the past decade, top editors are going to find it increasingly difficult to stay out of the corporate fray. Maharaj called the newsroom "resilient" in his address today. And that might be the most important skill for newspaper editor to have these days.

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