John S. Carroll was at the pinnacle of his career.
The editor of the Los Angeles Times had just led the newspaper to two Pulitzer Prizes, the 12th and 13th of his five-year tenure. The coveted public-service award that spring of 2005 seemed particularly sweet.
Martin Luther King Jr./Drew Medical Center — a series that Carroll had painstakingly polished himself, pencil in hand.
The public ebullience stood in stark contrast to Carroll's private dismay. Hardly a month went by, it seemed to him, without a new demand from his Tribune Co. bosses in Chicago for staff reductions or for The Times to run more stories from other papers in the Tribune chain.
Before announcing his resignation in July of that year, Carroll contacted an old college friend, Norman Pearlstine, editor in chief at Time Inc., who helped arrange a meeting with Los Angeles' preeminent power broker, Eli Broad.
In a weekend visit to Broad's Brentwood home, Carroll told the billionaire philanthropist that he was likely to leave the paper and had a question to ask: Would Broad consider trying to buy the Los Angeles Times?
Carroll was stepping outside an editor's traditional role as arms-length observer. And he was doing so without the knowledge of his employer, which had shown no inclination to sell the paper.
That meeting resonates loudly today: Broad joined investor Ron Burkle this week in a bid for all of Tribune, not just the Los Angeles Times. Another local magnate, David Geffen, is expected to counter with his own bid for the paper.
The Carroll-Broad meeting reflected a deteriorating relationship between Tribune and its largest newspaper, which would cost The Times two publishers and two editors in less than two years. Carroll's departure followed that of Publisher John P. Puerner, whose replacement, Jeffrey M. Johnson, was shown the door last month. Carroll's successor, Dean Baquet, ends his tenure today, after less than 16 months on the job.
The struggle has placed The Times on the front line in a battle sweeping the newspaper industry. Challenged by the Internet and other new media, corporate owners have demanded budget cuts to improve short-term financial performance. Journalists have pushed back, questioning whether public-company ownership can ever again be hospitable to the profession's public-service aspirations.
"There is a revolution happening in our business," said Nicholas Lemann, dean of the Graduate School of Journalism at Columbia University. "There is a huge shift underway and no one knows how it's going to play out
. It's a great drama, with great characters, that is just very sad."
Tribune's acquisition of Times Mirror Co. in 2000 brought together two dissimilar organizations in a union burdened from the start with high expectations. Tribune, a Midwestern company whose holdings included the Chicago Tribune, television stations and the Chicago Cubs baseball team, was known for its emphasis on efficiency and its early embrace of the Internet.
Times Mirror had long dominated the Southern California media landscape with The Times, for many years the biggest revenue producer of any American newspaper. With the ascension of Otis Chandler to the publisher's office in 1960, The Times spent freely as it reached for journalistic excellence.
The combination of Tribune Co. and Times Mirror, it was hoped, would exploit multiple media platforms to capture larger audiences and more advertising dollars. It would have newspapers and TV stations in the nation's three largest markets — New York, Los Angeles and Chicago. Its 22 television stations and satellite and cable television operations would reach 75% of U.S. television households.
So confident was Tribune that it paid one of the biggest premiums ever for a publicly traded company; the $8-billion purchase meant that the price of Times Mirror shares nearly doubled overnight.
But the promise of a go-go new century was deflated almost immediately. Only three months into the year 2000, the dot-com bubble burst. The 9/11 terrorist attacks the following year delivered another blow to the economy.
"As a result of those events, we were facing a revenue picture we did not anticipate when we bought Times Mirror," recalled Puerner, the veteran Tribune executive brought in to be publisher of The Times.
The much-heralded synergy that had been the underpinning of the marriage proved elusive. The Times and its sister television station, KTLA-TV Channel 5, struggled to work together. The Times saw itself as a purveyor of serious journalism. KTLA attracted younger viewers, often with lighter fare and a breezier news style.
Among the many disconnects between the two: The newspaper used another TV station to sponsor the Los Angeles Times Festival of Books, its most successful promotional event. And major investigations by The Times were not shared with KTLA in advance. The Times series last year on high school dropouts was featured on the local PBS affiliate, KCET.