The carnival that is Chicago-based newspaper chain tronc’s attempt to boost plunging revenue and circulation picked up another colorful act last week with the announcement that L.A. Times publisher and editor Davan Maharaj was being ousted in favor of Ross Levinsohn, a veteran of Yahoo and Fox Interactive Media.
Besides the dubious distinction of buying the troubled MySpace web operation for Rupert Murdoch’s Fox, resulting in significant losses, the Hollywood media mogul also helped launch the broadcast career of Scott Kaplan. Years before the controversial talk-show maven arrived in San Diego, Levinsohn was Kaplan’s boss at an online start-up called Sportsline, later purchased by CBS. As coincidence would have it, Kaplan subsequently became the confrontational co-star — along with ex-Charger Billy Ray Smith and Amber Mesker — of the Union-Tribune’s ill-fated cable TV channel, mounted by Republican kingpin Doug Manchester when he owned the newspaper half-a-decade ago.
Now Levinsohn has the job of turning around the Times, and by association, its smaller sister to the south, the U-T, also owned by tronc. The head of San Diego’s operation is technically editor Jeff Light, who added publisher to his title when tronc decided to merge the two functions at all of its papers, but insiders predict the new Times publisher will rule here as well. For his trouble, Levinsohn is picking up about $1 million a year in salary, thestreet.com reports, plus about $8.5 million in tronc stock at current prices, vested over the three years of his contract.
The latest Times shake-up faces skepticism from media watchers, including business writer Joe Nocera, who observed in a column for Bloomberg last week that tronc “is an unusually inept public company with very little cash.” Without mentioning the U-T — likely to be forever joined to the Times unless ultimately folded — Nocera advanced the notion that tronc should unload the L.A. paper to the widow of Apple founder Steve Jobs for $250 million or so.
“The Bloomberg Billionaires Index says that Laurene Powell Jobs is worth $18 billion,” wrote Nocera. “Were Powell Jobs, or someone like her, willing to give Tronc a healthy premium, I bet she could land it. It’s the best hope this once-great paper has.”