Los Angeles Times Publisher Mark Willes

In praise of the “cereal killer.’

Newspapers are always dying, and someone is always killing them. Radio was supposed to bury them. So was television. So was their aging readership. So was USA Today. So was the Internet.

The latest murderer: the corporate bean counter. He breaches the Chinese Wall between business and editorial, cares more about the stock price than about the front-page lead, favors stories that focus groups want to read, and talks constantly about “product.” To hear critics tell it, Times Mirror CEO Mark Willes, who just named himself publisher of the Los Angeles Times, is of that ilk. The greatest newspaper of the West is now being run by a man whose newspaper experience totals two years (much of it spent closing papers) and who passed the bulk of his career as an executive of General Mills, a breakfast-cereal company (or rather, a breakfast-cereal company, for chrissakes!).

Virtually every newspaper in the country has married some editorial and business functions, but Willes would go further. Rather than limiting business-editorial contact to the top of the masthead, he proposes to have each section of the Times (sports, business, etc.) operate as a more or less autonomous unit. Each will have its own “minipublisher” who will set profitability goals and consult with editors on general content (though not, Willes insists, on specific stories). Media critics are aghast. The Wall Street Journal calls it “a revolution in the newspaper business.”

Willes is also pushing “hero” stories and civic journalism, the kind of pandering to readers that infuriates editors. He suggests that the Times introduce new sections aimed at Hispanic and female readers. Times staffers gripe that such sections would only ghettoize minority readers. Shelby Coffey, the Times’ editor of nine years, quit last week amid speculation that he couldn’t stomach Willes’ changes.

The newspaper business has always been romantic, and few papers have been more romantic than the Times. For most of its life, it was a right-wing rag that rooted unapologetically for Republican politicians and local businessmen. Then in 1960, Otis Chandler, the surfing, antique-car-collecting scion of the Chandler family (which owns most of Times Mirror), took over as publisher. During the next two decades, Chandler and his editors transformed the Times into one of the best papers in the country. They hired talented writers by the score, ran the longest stories in the industry, and won Pulitzer after Pulitzer. The Times was profligate, editorially bold, and profitable. Otis Chandler’s Times–like the Sulzbergers’ New York Times, the Grahams’ Washington Post, and all great newspapers–was as much grand adventure as business.

But Otis Chandler retired, the Times lost 300,000 subscribers, the stock went south, and Chandler’s more conservative relatives demanded higher profits. The era of newspaper romance slipped away in Los Angeles (as it did everywhere else). Willes seems to embody the capitalist rationalism that has replaced it. A Utah native, he first made a name for himself in the late ‘60s as a conservative economist, touting “rational expectations” theory long before it became fashionable. In 1977, at age 35, he became the youngest president of a Federal Reserve Bank (in Minneapolis). In 1980, he jumped to General Mills, where he eventually served as president, chief operating officer, and vice chairman. General Mills, his critics note, is a company where marketing, rather than content, is king.

Two years ago, the Chandler family picked him to run their $3.4-billion-but-still-sickly media company. (In addition to its flagship Times, Times Mirror owns half a dozen other newspapers, including the Hartford Courant, the Baltimore Sun, and Newsday; several magazines; and medical and legal publishers.) Within weeks, Willes had made himself one of the most detested men in journalism. In a now infamous interview, he compared newspapers to cereal. Then he shuttered the venerable Baltimore Evening Sun and New York Newsday, the much admired, much unread, much unprofitable downtown sister to Newsday. He also fired 175 members of the Times editorial staff. The paper, known as the “velvet coffin” because of its high pay and cushy working conditions, had not laid off reporters for decades. Predictably, Willes was nicknamed “Cereal Killer” and “Cap’n Crunch.”

Wall Street loved what the newsroom loathed. Times Mirror’s costs plummeted. Profits soared. The stock has tripled from $18 when Willes arrived to nearly $60 today–the best performance of any big media company. Publishing analysts say that Times Mirror is now one of the healthiest firms in the industry. The Chandler family has profited from the company’s rising dividends and stock price.

Times-philes do have some reason to worry about Willes as publisher. The idea of having ad salesmen and “minipublishers” help plan editorial sections is terrifying to anyone who’s ever met an ad salesman. “Heroic” and civic journalism do often degenerate into idiotic rah-rah cheerleading. A push for shorter stories–also said to be in the works–may well vanquish the elegant, comprehensive (OK, long-winded) pieces for which the paper is famous. (“We’ll just have to be famous for something else,” snaps one Times vet.)

But there is a more fruitful way to look at Willes: He is the first high-profile newspaper man in a long time who actually believes in newspapers. Newspaper profits may be at record highs, but the newspaper Zeitgeist is gloomy. Circulation has barely risen since World War II, and it’s been falling for five years. Newspaper reporters increasingly feel themselves irrelevant–marginalized by TV news and the Internet, ignored by a younger generation of nonreaders.

Willes is an optimist. He’s a proselytizer of newspapers. According to those who know him, he has learned why newspapers are a public trust since his unfortunate cereal interview. (He has forsworn cereal analogies.) Other papers are shrinking content; Willes wants to add sections and features. Other papers fear controversy; he proposes newspaper “crusades.” His ideas may be terrible–some of them certainly are terrible–but at least they are new.

Willes’ boldest goal: to raise the Times circulation from 1 million to 1.5 million. No one thinks he can do it. Industry analyst John Morton says it would be “a miracle” if he pulled it off. But everyone wants him to try, because only new readers will save the industry in the long run. Willes recently halved the price of the Times to 25 cents to reach nonsubscribers. He’s launched a huge ad campaign. The Times added 47,000 readers last year, more than any newspaper in the country–and about the same number the New York Times lost.

To add half a million readers, or even half that number, Willes will need to steal subscribers from the 18 other newspapers in the Los Angeles area, including the Orange County Register and the Los Angeles Daily News. This raises an appetizing prospect. The Daily News is up for sale. Rupert Murdoch is rumored to be interested in buying it and turning it into a West Coast version of the New York Post. A circulation-hungry Willes vs. the rapacious Murdoch: That’s just the kind of fight the American newspaper industry needs.