Media Circus: The amazing rise of Captain Crunch

Derided as a visigoth cereal magnate, Mark Willes has slimmed, trimmed, and invigorated the all-too-comfy L.A. Times.

Published September 19, 1997 7:00PM (EDT)

one thing about Times Mirror CEO Mark Willes: He has a tough hide. When this former General Mills vice chairman came to Times Mirror two years ago, jokes about the new boss being a "Cereal Killer" and "Captain Crunch" began making the rounds at the Los Angeles Times, the parent company flagship and Hollywood's hometown paper of record. Willes lived up to the monikers, almost immediately eliminating deadwood (at the Times, long known as the Velvet Coffin) and unprofitable misadventures (the enjoyable but money-hemorrhaging New York Newsday).

Those cost-cutting measures quickly raised Times Mirror stock -- then at a low $24 a share -- by 50 percent. (The price is now around $54, a figure not reached since before the 1987 stock market tumble.) Nevertheless, July 21, 1995, remains the big Black Friday on Spring Street. Sept. 12, 1997, was something of a Black Friday II, but so far for only one person: publisher Richard Schlosberg III, who will retire early in October.

When word of an impending announcement trickled down to the newsroom last week, everyone immediately thought Shelby Coffey III, the paper's famously wishy-washy editor-in-chief, would be leaving. But the rumor mill had jumped the gun on this before. Excited cries of "Shelby's out!" were last heard around Times Mirror Square in February, before it became clear that, uh, no ... actually he wasn't.

Schlosberg's surprise retirement was officially described by the Times as allowing him "to spend more time with his family ... (ending) a 22-year career in the newspaper business." But Spring Streeters see this spin as nonsense. Schlosberg, a marathon runner and shipshape former military man, is just 53. "And his wife is finishing her Ph.D.," said one staffer. "She's not going to want to putter around the house with him. He'll probably end up somewhere else."

The announcement came after months of head-butting between Schlosberg and Willes, who now also takes the title of Los Angeles Times publisher. Schlosberg reportedly fought the Times Mirror CEO on pretty much every front. Insiders say that he disagreed, for instance, with last year's halving of the daily paper's price from 50 cents to a quarter. If you consider (as I do) daily newspaper reading a social good, and if you realize (as I do) that 25 cents per day makes a difference to many people, it's hard to dismiss Willes as just a Cereal Killer.

The price cut quickly raised Times circulation by almost 5 percent, while other big-city papers (the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, the Washington Post) continued to lose readers. The New York Times, in fact, during the winter months ending March 31, lost almost the same amount of daily readers (around 50,000) that the Los Angeles Times gained.

But there's something about Willes, a buttoned-down veteran of the Federal Reserve System who hails from Utah, that inspires wisecracks. Shortly after his arrival came the inevitable Letterman-inspired Top Ten list: "The Top Ten Changes Mark Willes Plans for Times Mirror" included "Add carton of milk to those little cereal boxes you already get with your Sunday Times" and "All house ads to contain the phrase: 'The big G stands for Journalism!'" But beneath this I also heard whispers that -- could it be? -- suggested a rather grudging respect.

"He's smart, candid and a real straight-shooter," says one writer. A common Spring Street sentiment is that it's embarrassing how it takes a guy from a cereal company to be the first person in ages who doesn't communicate to the newsroom in doublespeak.

David Shaw, the Times media critic, has observed three basic mind-sets among his colleagues about the latest Willes move: (1) Let's wait and see; (2) Maybe it takes someone from the outside to come up with useful new ideas; (3) The Visigoths have taken over the temple.

"But he seems to me to be very bright," says Shaw. "He seems like a good listener, and he asks interesting questions. Some people around here I have respect for have been impressed."

"Look, a lot of those people were deadwood," a Times editor muttered to me during the July 1995 layoff of about 150 editorial employees. Boy, was that the end of an era: Farewell, gentle nudge out the door; hello, Dagwood-style boot-to-the-behind. Of course, Spring Street culture being what it is, as late as Thursday of that week some hapless souls had no idea that their years of coming into the office, drinking coffee and producing the occasional story were to end in less than 24 hours.

The CEO's slash-and-burn elimination of the Times' myriad Balkanized bureaus (Goodbye, Valley Life!) during the 1995 layoffs was of course upsetting to those who lost their jobs. But it was good news for Los Angeles' remaining loyal newspaper readers. I had hated watching the devolution of what was once a unifying big city paper into a stultifying collection of small town rags.

Willes has been mocked for using breakfast cereal business analogies, but they indicate that he might be on to something. Immigrants like to buy Cheerios, he once pointed out, because it makes them feel American. And so they (and other narrow slices of the demographic pie) might also like to buy a brand-name city paper like the Times, rather than some market researcher's patronizing pipe dream of their specialized interests.

On Tuesday, Willes met with the Metro staff, and after the predictable corporate platitudes ("This is an excellent senior management team"), he began to get interesting.

"This is only a declining industry if we manage it like a declining industry," Willes said. "If we manage it like a growth industry, it will be a growth industry." He hopes to increase circulation by 50 percent and reintroduce a Northern California edition, potentially making Hollywood's hometown rag the paper of record for the entire state. Captain Crunch he may be, but Willes is managing to win some hearts and minds in editorial.

After his announcement of the corporate reshuffling to around 50 top editors last Friday, there were high fives down on the city desk. Gleeful remarks of "One down, two to go!" (a reference to SC3, as he's called in interoffice e-mail, and managing editor Michael Parks) came from the investigative reporters unit. City editor Lennie LaGuire, a hard-boiled newsbabe and veteran of the old Los Angeles Herald-Examiner, was described as visibly moved at Willes' speech ... although not, alas, actually misty-eyed, as I'd first heard and enjoyed imagining.

Willes, after all, was the one who increased the award of Times Mirror stock from 25 shares to 50 at the March editorial awards banquet. The tacit message that the stock is now actually worth something was presumably not lost on the recipients. This bonus was a savvy move during a time when resentment about how some employees are more equal than others was simmering. A ceramic pig had appeared in the newsroom, into which everyone was supposed to (anonymously) insert their salaries. The results were later read in the suitably crying-into-your-beer atmosphere of a bar across the street.

The pig appeared just after a memo to Shelby, which was circulated by six staffers and signed by pretty much all the rank-and-file. This memo complained about business and technical writer Jon Markman's reported $126,000 salary, which was a good 50 percent higher than most of his comrades. Why aren't we worth that much, just because no one's made us a better offer? the letter basically asked. (My answer is that until someone does, you're not.) Coffey had given Markman a raise to keep him from going to Microsoft; the punch line is that Markman left anyway.

Anyway, although he has spoken about recognizing the need for separation of business and editorial, Willes has also met directly with newsroom staff. Shortly before the Schlosberg ouster, Willes was spotted by Coffey and Parks lunching with one manager. Reportedly, they sat down next to this manager later and said, "Listen, Dick (Schlosberg) doesn't like it when people go behind his back." The lunch took place in what used to be called the Picasso Room. Now it's just the executive dining room, because a couple of years ago the cost-cutting Willes sold the Picassos.

A few months after his arrival, Willes had a meeting with SC3 and several reporters and editors. "What more can we do to shape people's thinking?" he asked each person in the room. Not satisfied with the answers, he suggested that those present report back when they managed to come up with better suggestions. This sort of thing has long puzzled Spring Streetologists. But the new mood among editorial is optimistic: If it's good for the newspaper, maybe it's good for us.

All this week Willes has been meeting daily with the news staff, and he's been effective. Some have actually compared Willes to Otis Chandler, the ambitious publisher and Times family fortune heir who in the 1960s began transforming the paper from one of the worst in the country (as Time magazine described it) to what it is now. Which is, of course, my favorite newspaper. At least west of the Rockies.

By Catherine Seipp

Catherine Seipp is a regular contributor to Salon.

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