It didn't get a lot of fanfare outside of Newport Beach and Costa Mesa, but last week, longtime Daily Pilot Publisher Tom Johnson was forced out of his job by meddling executives at the Los Angeles Times.
Letting Johnson get away from the Pilot is like having Apple's board of directors run off Steve Jobs. Sheer stupidity. Tom was, by far, the best publisher and advertising salesperson I've seen in more than two decades in the business. Smart, innovative, inspiring, passionate.
Over 17 years, Tom had turned the Pilot into a miniature cash cow for its owner, The Times. But in just a few months, his MBA-loving bosses put the paper into what could be a death spiral by allowing its beloved leader -- in the newsroom, in the advertising department and in the community -- to leave.
Besides the good folks who work at the paper, the communities of Newport Beach and Costa Mesa stand to be the biggest losers. Now they have access to a rare commodity: a small daily paper that watches over their city councils and school boards, reports on the cities' births, deaths and arrests, and sends reporters to their high school football games and school plays. But coverage tomorrow, who knows?
I'm very biased on this one. I've known Tom for 17 years. We took over the Daily Pilot in the early 1990s at a time it was losing $250,000 a month and was on the verge of closing down. No one believed the Pilot would survive, but it did. More than that, it thrived. Editorially, the California Newspaper Publishers Assn. named the Pilot the best community daily in the state. Financially, Tom delivered profit margins as high as 28.5 percent.
OK, here's a test to see if you have what it takes to be an executive at The Times. Let's say you've been put in charge of the Daily Pilot, in addition to all your duties. Do you:
A. Give Tom Johnson the freedom, support and incentive to continue to manage the Pilot as he successfully has for the past 17 years?
B. Despite the large problems you face at The Times, spend valuable time micro-managing the Pilot from 45 miles away while making sure you never step foot inside the newspaper's headquarters, never talk to the employees or never meet anyone in the community?
For most, the answer would be rhetorical. For Tribune-trained execs, the answer is B.
I still have many friends at the Pilot, and they've been in a daze since Tom's abrupt departure. No new publisher has been named, and I can see that position being left vacant (what does a local paper need a publisher for, anyway?). One of the Tribune geniuses better give Tony Dodero, who had been Tom's right hand man and is highly respected at the paper and in the community, a big fat raise and no-layoff promise to keep him.
The irony is that Tom will be just fine. Better than fine. He's already received many job offers and promises of venture capital from fans of his in the community (I'm hoping to team up with him for a business venture or two).
It's the Pilot at risk now. For no good reason. We've seen the Tribune Co.'s inability to manage large newspapers. Now its resume is complete. When it comes to the Tribune Co.'s panache for screwing up papers, size doesn't matter.
Posted by William Lobdell on 8/11/2008