Silicon Valley Watcher - Former FT journalist Tom Foremski reporting from the intersection of technology and media

11.09.06: Bidding war for LA Times?

Posted by Richard Koman - November 9, 2006

In the aftermath of the forced ouster of LA Times editor Dean Baquet, it looks like a bidding war is erupting for the troubled paper. Baquet and former publisher Jerry Johnson had made headlines by publicly - in the paper - resisting Tribune Co-ordered staff cuts. Johnson was fired in short order, while Baquet held on. Then in New Orleans he made a speech urging editors to fight back against cuts.

"It is the job of editors of newspapers to put up a little bit more of a fight than we have put up in the past," Baquet said in a speech before the Associated Press Managing Editors here. "Don't be shy about making the public service argument."

Baquet was fired in the middle of election night, throwing the newsroom into turmoil. Kevin Roderick of LA Observed reported:

Chicago has toppled the regime by kicking out editor Dean Baquet and publisher Jeffrey Johnson, but Tribune's new governor-general, David Hiller, and Col. (James) O'Shea (the new editor) are viewed by many in the newsroom as occupiers. Yesterday, before Hiller stood on a desk here to dryly confirm the coup before angry and teary-eyed reporters and editors, he heard a voice on the speaker phone from Washington quip that bureau staffers had (figuratively) just hung Tribune CEO Dennis Fitzsimons in effigy. Hiller did not look amused. While he addressed the gathering, at least one staffer in L.A. symbolically turned his back. A Times security officer stood nearby, the first time that anyone could remember a publisher being escorted into the third floor newsroom. Baquet clapped courteously after Hiller spoke, but not many others did.

Into this maelstrom comes what looks like an extremely solid bid from supermarket magnate Ron Burkle and homebuilding mogul Eli Broad to buy the entire Tribune Co. Since the two were considered enemies and "well-known control freaks," the fact that they're working together makes the bid seem viable. (Tribune Co execs clearly want to take the company private and they might just be happy to hand the whole rotting empire off to someone else.)

If this is a culture war between LA and Chicago, who better to ride in like the cavalry than the king of content, Hollywood's own David Geffen. Roderick points to LA Weekly's Nikki Finke, who gossips that Geffen is hot and heavy to take over the Times, pour money into it and restore it to its former glory - and he likes its 20 percent profit margin too.

I’m told Geffen is starting to plan what he intends to do at the paper once it’s his. Here’s what he’s saying to friends: He’ll pour money into more hires. He plans to staff -- more like stuff -- the paper with name writers and journalism stars. (Of course, he’ll raid The New York Times, where Frank Rich and his wife, Alex Witchel, are his good friends and occasional overnight guests. So are Nora Ephron and Nick Pileggi. So are a lot of literati.) He’ll demand quality. He’ll ratchet up the Web site (even though he hates how prohibitively expensive it is to do that). He’ll figure out a way to bring in Latinos as readers. Geffen loathes how boring, badly written, inconsequential and pedestrian the L.A. Times’ editorial and opinion section is. He thinks nobody reads it. He knows nobody talks about it. Most of all, he wants his newspaper to be talked about. He’ll put the newsroom ahead of the ludicrous profit margins demanded by Wall Street and the Tribune Co.


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