Willes had come to Times Mirror in 1995 from General Mills to be a fiscal disciplinarian, charged with upping profits and satisfying the Chandlers’ dividend income needs. Many at the Times dismissed Willes as the “cereal killer,” especially after he closed Newsday’s money-losing New York edition, but he was bullish on the future of newspapers, vowing to add a million paying customers. Profits rose on his watch, which made it even more stunning when, months after that April meeting, the Chandler family lawyer informed him that the cousins were selling their family birthright, under a complex stock swap. The paper that built Los Angeles would answer to Chicago. “One of the things I have never been is politically astute,” Willes later recalled. “I had no hint at all. I was incredibly naïve.”
Willes had provoked the Chandlers by naming himself publisher and acting like more than their hired hand, O’Shea writes. Then there was a humiliating scandal: Willes’s successor as publisher, Kathryn Downing, had approved a plan to share profits from a special issue of the Sunday magazine with the subject of the issue, the new Staples Center arena in downtown Los Angeles. The scheme was so embarrassing that Otis Chandler phoned in a statement from his retirement retreat. The Staples deal was “unbelievably stupid and unprofessional,” Chandler said, and the Willes era “the single most devastating period in the history of this great newspaper.”
In comparison, the post-merger era began smoothly. Chicago sent a fresh team to reassure Los Angeles, led by publisher John Puerner and the respected editor John Carroll. He stressed investigations, won Pulitzers, and shrunk the layers of editing that reporters dislike. The honeymoon was nice, but quarreling soon began. Tribune had overpaid for Times Mirror. Profits were sagging, and there was scant financial benefit to Tribune’s idea of leveraging its TV stations and papers in a fantasy of city-by-city synergy. Chicago pressured its properties to slash costs. Among the easiest reductions were the now-redundant executives in Los Angeles. Puerner cut staff from 5,300 to 3,400.
The Times newsroom was largely spared, but not for long. In Chicago, everyone felt the Times was fat—its bureaus overstaffed, its reporters coddled and overcompensated. But mostly, Chicago felt Times people looked down on them. “We all resented the insolence toward our paper,” O’Shea writes. The cost-cutting directives from Chicago grew more personal and painful. In one incredible frenzy in 2005-06, Carroll resigned as editor and Puerner as publisher, saying the cuts Chicago wanted were devastating and unnecessary. A new publisher groomed in Tribune culture, Jeff Johnson, also refused to cut. “Newspapers can’t cut their way to the future,” he said, infuriating his bosses. Dean Baquet, Carroll’s successor, was next to go for pushing back at Chicago.
O’Shea was dispatched to LA in November 2006 to be the third editor in two years. Friends advised him not to go. “No matter what you do, you will always be viewed as a hatchet man from Chicago,” Times managing editor Doug Frantz warned. He took the job, and an apartment on the beach—too good an opportunity to pass up, O’Shea writes. He supervised deep cuts, but writes that he successfully resisted worse demands from Chicago. In the sixteen months before his time came too—over yet more staff cuts, of course—O’Shea takes credit for streamlining the Times’s structure, adding a profitable new fashion section, and steering the paper toward smarter use of the Internet. (Times journalists, who remember O’Shea more as an aloof editor, might dispute some of that.)
Before he left, the Tribune story took a twist that has yet to be resolved. The Chandlers, worried about their declining dividend checks, forced the company to consider takeover offers. The winner was Sam Zell, a Chicago investor known for buying depressed assets and riding them to huge profits. At first, his new staff was optimistic that Zell would stop the bleeding. But he proved to be even less of a friend than his predecessors. In one notorious incident, he barked “fuck you” at a female photographer who dared to ask about news values. He mocked his editors, and in a visit to the Times shocked staffers when he announced that the paper would start taking ads from strip clubs because, as he said, “it’s un-American not to like pussy.”