Magazine article Editor & Publisher

David Hiller of the 'L.A.Times': Beyond 'Frontline'

Magazine article Editor & Publisher

David Hiller of the 'L.A.Times': Beyond 'Frontline'

Article excerpt

On Tuesday, PBS repeated in some cities its recent airing of the episode in the "Frontline" series on the media that focused on the recent troubles at the Los Angeles Times, going back to jobs cuts, the firing of Publisher Jeff Johnson and Editor Dean Baquet, and the current struggle by Tribune to find a new owner.

Along the way, bits and pieces of an interview with David Hiller -- sent from Chicago to replace Johnson -- appeared, defending Tribune's moves. But they come from a much longer discussion with host Lowell Bergman.

As E&P has noted several times, more than 50 transcripts of interviews from the program are posted at pbs.org, and we have highlighted many of them over the past month. Here are excerpts from the Hiller interview.

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Q. You must have heard that you needed to cut costs, jobs. The editors back in 2004 were resisting.

A. Yeah. I think one of the biggest disservices that's been done is converting this debate over the future of newspapers into a simple-minded, cuts-versus-no-cuts debate. I know that's how it got portrayed in the press, including in the pages of newspapers, including our own paper. But that makes it a way too narrow issue. The issue isn't about jobs and cuts. That's focused on the wrong thing. The issue is readers, audience, users. Those are the numbers that you've got to be focused on. Are we growing? Are we staying important to our readers and users?

Now, along the way, as we change, we're going to have to reallocate resources; we're going to have to cut in some areas; we're going to have to add in other areas. But to get dug in and make this huge issue of the future of newspaper just portrayed as something about the numbers of jobs in the newsroom is a really unfortunate oversimplification. ...

Q. It's a good business. What's the financial problem? Why are people being laid off, bought out? Fifty to 75 more reporters next year?

A. Yeah. On that one, we haven't said or planned or decided any number of buyouts or layoffs for next year. Let me address your bigger question. The issue for the whole newspaper industry -- not just the Los Angeles Times -- is, what's the financial trajectory of the business over time? At the present time, here in Los Angeles, we have a lot of revenue, and there is a lot of cash flow, but the question is, is it getting bigger, or is it getting smaller? That's plainly the concern that the investors have and why Wall Street is being so harsh on newspaper companies at the present time....

Q. Are you beginning to cut into the ability of the Times to compete by cutting jobs?

A. Yeah. Well, I don't want to sugarcoat it. At some point, you do need to deal with the issue of resources, and I'm glad that [former L.A. Times editor] John Carroll -- who's another friend of mine -- I'm glad that John framed it as not cuts versus no cuts, but it's the issue of how many resources, where are they deployed, how much on the Web, how much in print. That's a legitimate and right discussion to have. But the way not to have that discussion is to get dug in and dig in one's heels and say: "Here's a bright line in the sand. One more job and we're going to heck in a handbasket, and the age of good journalism is over." ...

Q. But [former Times publisher Jeff] Johnson says you can't cut your way into the future. Maybe redeployment is what you need to do, not announcing layoffs? You're going to lose quality people.

A. It's certainly the case that you can't cut forever and feel that that's a successful surgery for taking it into the future. It can't be. I don't suggest that it is; I'm not aware that anybody in the rest of the company is suggesting that it is. I do understand there was a difference of opinion about a particular line in the sand about whether any more cuts on a certain level were acceptable or weren't acceptable. Frankly, I was disappointed that the conversation turned in a way where people dug in their heels on that, but people get to make their own decisions. …

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