Times Mirror won't sell Eastern papers


Times Mirror Co.'s new chief executive yesterday said the company has no intentions of selling its East Coast newspapers, which include The Sun.

Times Mirror's newspapers and magazines are "wonderful companies," said Mark H. Willes, who became president and CEO of Times Mirror last month. "They have tremendous potential. Our intention is to improve the performance of what we've got, not sell them off to other people."

He spoke to reporters in a conference call on the same day the Los Angeles-based company announced its second-quarter earnings.

Asked to state flatly that no newspaper would be sold in the next 18 months, Mr. Willes said, "I can say absolutely, categorically -- every adjective that anybody can think of -- no newspaper will be sold."

Media reports recently have suggested that Times Mirror might seek a buyer for its East Coast papers.

At the same time, though, Mr. Willes and other executives made clear that Times Mirror's papers will go through cost reductions to improve their profits. The company also owns the Hartford Courant, Long Island Newsday and some smaller papers.

The Los Angeles Times, the company's flagship newspaper, announced Tuesday that it would eliminate 700 positions from its 6,500-employee staff by the end of the year.

Asked whether other papers would experience similar cuts, Executive Vice President Richard T. Schlosberg III said: "I think it is likely there will be some additional downsizing throughout the system, although plans are not developed."

The goal this year is to cut "more than 1,000" employees throughout Times Mirror, the company said in a written statement. That includes the 700 jobs at the Los Angeles Times but does not include more than 750 positions eliminated through the closing of New York Newsday, announced last week.

As part of its plans to close The Evening Sun in September and introduce an expanded and redesigned morning newspaper, The Baltimore Sun Co. had said it would seek to reduce its 1,700-person work force by fewer than 50 newsroom and production employees.

Times Mirror executives declined to comment on whether those cuts would be expanded or changed.

Mr. Willes' goal is to increase Times Mirror profit margins to levels comparable with "peer companies." But he cautioned that the company can't shrink its way to prosperity. It will reinvest some of its cost savings "to make sure not only that our base businesses are strong but that they have the potential for future growth," he said.

Times Mirror also announced plans to buy back up to 10 percent of its common stock.

Yesterday, Times Mirror shares closed at $27.25, up 25 cents. If Mr. Willes boosts newspaper operating profit margins from their present 9.4 percent of revenue to the industry average of 17.6 percent of revenue, "I think the stock's a $40 stock within a couple of years," said Kenneth T. Berents, a newspaper analyst with Wheat First Butcher Singer in Richmond, Va.

Times Mirror also said yesterday that it earned $26 million in the second quarter, or 11 cents a share, from profit from continuing operations of $32.1 million, or 25 cents, a year earlier.

The most recent quarter included payment of $13.8 million in preferred dividends. In the year-ago period, a $13.3 million gain from discontinued cable operations resulted in net income of $45.4 million, or 35 cents a share.

Revenue rose 4.4 percent to $843.3 million.

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