LOS ANGELES — LOS ANGELES -- The Tribune Co. forced Los Angeles Times Publisher Jeffrey M. Johnson to step down yesterday, three weeks after the executive stirred a national debate about corporate ownership of newspapers by publicly defying a demand for staff cuts in his newsroom.
Johnson was replaced immediately by David D. Hiller, the publisher of the company's hometown newspaper, the Chicago Tribune. Hiller is the 12th chief executive in the Times' 125-year history.
Tribune Publishing President Scott C. Smith, who came to Los Angeles with a team of executives, said in an interview that he hoped the management changes would end speculation that the Tribune intends to sell the Times. Three local billionaires have expressed interest in buying the paper over the past year.
Hiller, a former corporate lawyer and a member of the Justice Department under President Ronald W. Reagan, held a series of meetings with employees through the afternoon and then met last night with business leaders in Century City, Los Angeles' financial center.
Hiller, 53, said he had no preconceived ideas about whether to follow through with job cuts.
Johnson and Times Editor Dean P. Baquet had refused to cut as many as 100 newsroom positions, contending it would damage a newspaper widely regarded as one of the nation's best.
"I don't have a plan or a set of numbers or any set of definitive answers," Hiller said in an interview at the Times offices. "What I want to do is come in, get to know the place, get to know my new colleagues and, with them, figure it out."
Hiller told Times editors that he would not have taken the publisher's job if Tribune executives had ordered him to reduce the newspaper staff by a specific amount. He said he hasn't decided yet on the appropriate size of the newspaper's staff, which was the main source of contention between Johnson and Tribune. Hiller also said he understands the value readers placed on the Times' national and foreign coverage.
Baquet told associates last week he was likely to leave if Johnson were fired - a move that some at the paper feared would trigger an exodus of other top journalists. But the Times editor and Hiller agreed that they would try to work together.
"I have a tremendous loyalty" to Johnson, Baquet told a somber gathering of editors, who packed into a conference room late in the morning. "But, as I have said before, the paper has to come first.
"I am going to make as compelling a case as I can about [maintaining] the size of the newsroom," Baquet added.
The regime change at the Times played out just two weeks after a special committee of the Tribune Co.'s board of directors announced that it would entertain offers to purchase the company or some of its assets.
Among the Tribune's other media properties are KTLA-TV in Los Angeles, the Chicago Cubs baseball team, WGN-TV superstation, and nine more newspapers, including The Sun of Baltimore
Tribune bought the Times and The Sun six years ago as part of its $8 billion acquisition of the Times Mirror Co. of Los Angeles.
The marriage was problematic almost from the start. Disputes between the Tribune management and editors in Los Angeles had been kept behind closed doors.
But the tensions leapt into public view last month when a group of 20 prominent Los Angeles citizens, including former Secretary of State Warren W. Christopher, wrote the paper's Chicago management, saying that the paper had already suffered because of cuts that reduced the news staff from about 1,200 to 940.
Further reductions, the group said, could force the Times out of "the top ranks of American journalism." The group urged Tribune to return the paper to local ownership if it could not meet its financial goals without making further cuts.
Baquet said in an interview at the time that he had refused to make more cuts. Johnson backed his editor, saying: "Newspapers can't cut their way into the future. We have to carefully balance economic realities with serving our readers."
Journalists around the country had cheered the pair for fighting to hold the line against further contraction, while some publishers said the intransigence was not realistic in a time when newspaper revenues continue to be eroded by the Internet and other media outlets.
Johnson, 47, told friends after publicly defying his bosses that he realized his job could be on the line. In an interview yesterday Johnson said that it became apparent "late last week" that he would have to leave the paper.
Rumor of a change at the Times leaked out Wednesday. But Tribune executives declined to comment, as Smith, Hiller and two other executives flew to Los Angeles later that day.
The Tribune publishing chief and Johnson met first thing yesterday, sealing the publisher's ouster. At the same hour, Baquet and Hiller, the new Times publisher, met for the first time, over coffee at a downtown hotel.
By day's end Johnson had vacated his second-floor office, ending an 18-month tenure as publisher.
Tribune's reassertion of control over the Times also appeared to dampen at least immediate hopes by some in Los Angeles that the paper could be returned to local ownership.
Beginning more than a year ago, Los Angeles magnates, including entertainment mogul David Geffen, former supermarket executive Ron Burkle and philanthropist Eli Broad said they would be interested in buying the Times.
But Tribune Publishing's Smith, said he hoped yesterday's actions would put an end to thoughts that the paper would be sold.
"There is both strategic value and a financial value in the Times being part of Tribune," Smith said. "The Times is important to us."
James Rainey writes for the Los Angeles Times.