Chicago Tribune, L.A. Times Veterans Fear Possible Murdoch Takeover

Current and former staffers at the Los Angeles Times and Chicago Tribune are expressing concern at reports Friday that News Corp. Chairman and CEO Rupert Murdoch might be interested in buying the papers from Tribune Company, with one veteran Times newsman calling the notion “horrifying beyond belief.”

Rupert MurdochWhile many told Media Matters they are worried about Murdoch's potential ownership due to concerns over his ethical history and conservative ideology, others are so desperate to give their bankrupt papers financial stability that they are reluctantly willing to give him a chance.

“I have heard people express concerns of various kinds,” said one current Los Angeles Times' journalist and former newsroom editor who requested anonymity. “He invests in the properties, he has not downsized the [Wall StreetJournal. The one concern, fear of the unknown, is, well, the L.A. Times still has a substantial foreign staff, a substantial national staff and a substantial Washington bureau. What happens to those?”

One fear is that the takeover could spark an exodus of staff, which occurred at The Wall Street Journal after Murdoch purchased parent company Dow Jones in late 2007. Dozens of the paper's best journalists left, citing a perceived change in the paper's focus and at times an increased push for more business-friendly stories.

Several current and former Tribune Company staffers recalled what happened when Murdoch bought the rival Chicago Sun-Times in 1984, later selling it in 1986. The sale sparked the departure of many Sun-Times staffers, including the legendary columnist Mike Royko, who vowed not to work for Murdoch and left for the Tribune.

“If you look at the history of what he did across the street at the Sun-Times, that is a shot that the paper never fully recovered from,” said a current Tribune staffer who sought anonymity. “The sentiment of people is 'we want to keep doing the work we do,' owners do what they want to do with the paper.”

Speculation about a Murdoch purchase of the Times, Tribune, or perhaps other Tribune Company properties began last week with an October 19 Los Angeles Times report that he was interested. It cited “two ranking News Corp. executives and others familiar with the situation,” indicated talks were in the “early stages,” and stated a takeover could occur by the end of 2012.

News Corp. has denied the report, but the Los Angeles Times stands by its story.

A News Corp. purchase of the Times and the Tribune would give Murdoch control of four of the top 10 U.S. newspapers by circulation and, as the Times notes, “strong footholds in the nation's three largest media markets.”

The possible purchase by Murdoch comes at a time when Tribune Company, which owns the Chicago Tribune, the Los Angeles Times, and 10 other daily newspapers, as well as 23 television stations and other media properties, is emerging from a bruising four-year bankruptcy battle that has already cut its revenues and staff.

The financial problems stem from the 2007 purchase of Tribune Company by real estate magnate Sam Zell, who paid for the takeover through a leveraged buyout that created $13 million in debt. The company filed for bankruptcy a year later, a move that remains unresolved as creditors battle over a resolution plan in court.

The thought that Murdoch could take over some or all of the company's properties drew concern among current and former staffers.

“It's horrifying beyond words,” said Jack Robinson, who held several editor posts at the Los Angeles Times from 1997 to 2006. "The Times has been through such trauma over the years with bad owners, comically bad ownership. The thought of the paper having to go through that again is horrifying."

Asked why Murdoch would be a bad choice, he added, “It's because a paper is a fragile thing, it can break, that bond between readers and the paper is strong, but it is not indestructible. His record with local papers is terrible, and I think it could be the sort of thing that gets readers to try and decide they don't want it anymore. The idea of an independent local paper being folded into the Fox/News Corp ownership is destructive.”

Henry Weinstein, who worked in the Los Angeles Times newsroom from 1978 to 2008, also objected to a Murdoch takeover, citing a decrease in the quality of The Wall Street Journal since its purchase by the media mogul.

“I would not look forward to Murdoch becoming the owner of the Los Angeles Times or, for that matter, any other newspaper in this country or any other country, based on his record,” Weinstein said. “He historically has pandered to the basest interests. The quality of The Wall Street Journal has declined since he acquired the paper. With no offense to many fine reporters at the Journal, the paper simply is no longer the must read that it once was for me.”

Weinstein is also among several who cited the phone-hacking scandal in Britain, in which journalists at News Corp.'s now-defunct News of the World illegally obtained access to as many as 1,000 private voice mail messages.

The scandal led to the closing of the paper and arrests of several News Corp. employees, including former top editor Rebekah Brooks. A British House of Commons committee review of the scandal found that Murdoch was “not a fit person” to lead a major company, citing his “willful blindness” to unethical behavior.

“Revelations in The Guardian, other publications and public inquiries have made it eminently clear that Murdoch presided over an ethically-challenged newspaper empire in Britain,” Weinstein said. “It is lamentable for a plutocrat newspaper owner to inject his politics into a newspaper; it is considerably worse to preside over an enterprise that condoned the sort of tactics used by Murdoch's employees in England. He may never be charged with a crime but that sort of conduct does not occur unless the person at the top makes it clear ... that he either endorses, condones, or winks at illegal wiretapping and the like. I think a journalist at any newspaper or broadcast outlet ought to be seriously concerned about coming under Murdoch's authority.”

Bob Gremillion, who spent 36 years at Tribune Company and left as executive vice-president of Tribune Publishing, said he did not know if Murdoch would be a “good steward” of the company, citing his past political influence.

“I know how Fox News operates, I don't particularly agree with how Fox News presents news,” he said. “I would not want to see someone take over with a political agenda, I have never operated under a management team that exerted a particular political agenda. That would be something I would be concerned about.”

For Tim Rutten, former Times media writer and a 40-year veteran of the paper, the move would be devastating.

“I think it would be a disaster,” he said. “I don't think The Wall Street Journal has suffered the kinds of problems many of us feared and that is a credit to the staff. However, I think the L.A. Times would be a different proposition and the old Murdoch would emerge.”

He noted Murdoch's television and film ties as a real conflict for the paper.

“The Hollywood and entertainment industry coverage is such a key part of the L.A. Times mission and Murdoch's interest in that field is so substantial it is very hard for me to believe conflicts of all kinds wouldn't emerge,” he said. “I think it is a very bad idea for anyone with deep connections and investments in Hollywood and the entertainment industry to own the L.A. Times.”

Other Times veterans expressed their hope that a local bidder would emerge to purchase the paper. The Times' October 19 report noted that former venture capitalist and ex-deputy mayor of Los Angeles Austin Beutner and former greeting card executive and Orange County Register owner Aaron Kushner are also assembling investors to produce separate bids to purchase the paper.

"I'm not sure what [the Murdoch report] means. I know better than to hope for one billionaire over another," said one current Times scribe who request anonymity and later opined that other “interested, local civic types” would be preferred buyers.

Myron Levin, a journalist at the Times from 1984 to 2008, agreed.

“Despite all of the trauma it's been through, the L.A. Times is still one of the country's best newspapers and the dominant news organization in Southern California,” he said. “I'd rather see the paper go to one of the local billionaires than to Murdoch. Certainly, it's worrying to think of him owning not only the Times, but the Chicago Tribune as well.”  

For Chicago Tribune alumni, the memory of Murdoch's past history in the city is still vivid, and troubling.

“If this were to happen, who knows what would happen? What is the direction of the newspaper?” said Maurice Possley, a former federal court reporter for the Sun-Times, who left after seven years in 1984 when Murdoch bought that paper. He went to the Tribune, where he covered the same beat until 2008.

He said Murdoch's political leanings and past troubles, such as the British phone-hacking scandal, might hurt the paper's image.

“You've got to wonder what the guy brings in in terms of baggage, the paying off people overseas,” Possley said. “There is this perception out there in the public that his style, the Murdoch style, is a different style, that it is corrupt, frankly. If I were there, it would be a concern of mine, not only what he would eventually do in terms of the purse strings but what he would bring to public perception as a Murdoch property.”

Ed Sherman, a former Chicago Tribune sports reporter from 1981 to 2008, offered a similar concern.

“My most vivid memory of when he bought the Sun-Times, sitting in the Tribune newsroom and there goes Mike Royko walking right past me,” Sherman said. “That Royko was joining the other side because he did not have great love for the Tribune, that he so detested Rupert Murdoch, he went and walked across the street to join the Tribune. That says a lot about how people felt about Murdoch back then, and you wonder what it would be like today.”

Then there is Jim O'Shea, a former Times top editor and a one-time Chicago Tribune managing editor.

His take: “I think preferably these papers be sold to local owners. I don't think big companies with faraway management are good for metropolitan newspapers.”

He later added, “It would be a lot better if you had people who clearly cared about the community.”