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Friday, June 23, 2006

Finding Billionaire to Buy Times May Be Tall Order

Los Angeles Times
By Steve Lopez
June 23, 2006

Dick Riordan called my house Wednesday morning to repeat that he was willing to give me a tryout as a waiter at his restaurant, even though there wasn't much support for the idea among his staff. I showed up at the Original Pantry on Thursday and was given an apron, a bowtie and a paper hat, which could very well become my new uniform if I keep writing about the gentlemen who sign my checks.

The Pantry, a greasy spoon and downtown fixture since 1924, may outlast the newspaper industry anyway.

Riordan himself thought about starting a newspaper once but then came to his senses. And yet he'd like to see someone else — someone local — dip into their own piggy bank and buy the place, if only the current owners would put up a For-Sale sign.

The paper, as you may know, is owned by the Tribune Co., whose leaders have given no indication that they will go down as giants in American publishing history. By that I mean that if they owned a wine company with a 20% profit margin and wanted to bump it up to 22%, they would never think of improving the wine. They would instead put less wine in the bottle and slash the promotion budget to save costs.

And these are people who make a living by convincing businesses to advertise, even in the worst of times.

I figured that since I was going to be at the Pantry during the noon hour, I might as well invite some of the Southern California heavyweights who have jingled the change in their pockets and talked about buying the L.A. Times. I left messages for David Geffen, Eli Broad and Peter Ueberroth, and Riordan said he would try Ron Burkle, if not Haim Saban and Steve Soboroff.

Riordan's first move was to show me the dishwashing station, and if I'd left it up to him, I would have been scrubbing grease all afternoon. I told him I thought I was more of a people person, and he took me out to the grill to flip a few pancakes.

"You're wasting batter," Riordan scolded when some of the pancake mix flew off the grill.

Assistant Manager Jose Valdez thought I might do less damage as a waiter or maitre d', so I was moved out to the dining area to seat a few people and take drink orders. It quickly occurred to me that if I schmoozed the customers I could avoid hard work of any kind. One customer, Ron Rogers, liked my approach. He took my notebook and scribbled out a message.

"To Mr. Riordan: Please hire Steve Lopez as a waiter. He has a great personality and will be good for the establishment."

But Riordan found another customer, Rick Ovieda, who told him to get rid of me.

"He talks too much," said Ovieda.

I almost quit after waiting on my first table. Three women came in and one of them took so long to give me her order, I could have watched a World Cup soccer game.

The eggs had to be scrambled soft, but not just soft. They had to be very, very soft, please don't forget, with a hamburger steak patty not just medium but medium well, and the toast had to be buttered and tossed onto the grill just so, and how about some grilled onions on the side, with a diet coke but no ice, also some jalapeno peppers, and does that come with the breakfast potatoes?

It comes with a new waiter.

Riordan was quickly losing faith in me and said I was better as a maitre d', and I kept looking toward the door for the Billionaires Club. Not only was I going to escort them to their table, I was going to give them a little pep talk and lay out a game plan for the takeover of The Times.

That reminds me, by the way, of an e-mail I got from a reader regarding my Wednesday column, in which Broad said the newspaper ought to be owned by a local foundation more interested in community service than profits.

"Do you honestly think anyone outside the LA Times 'Family' gives a rip about all this?" asked a regular reader named Terry, who lives in Westlake Village. "Who cares?"

This is a fair question, Terry. Now pay attention to the answer.

A newspaper is not a bottle of wine, a widget or a grand slam breakfast. Whether in print or on the Web it's a voice, a forum, a cheerleader, a scold, a guide, a member of the community. This one is as imperfect as any and better than most, and there is not a more thorough and objective news report west of the Mississippi or you'd be able to name one, wouldn't you?

For two thin quarters, you get more than 900 reporters and editors who take seriously their mission to inform, entertain, and hold people in power accountable, including their own bosses. Who owns the paper matters. It matters almost as much as what the owner values, and the near-sighted hog butchers in Chicago are threatening another round of cuts that could diminish the power and purpose of a great local institution for the sake of kicking the stock up two points.

If our so-called civic leaders love Los Angeles as much as they claim, they'd be screaming that very message loud enough to turn heads in Chicago. And that's why I'm at the Pantry cafe, where I've got a takeover plan to share if the money men bother to show up for lunch.

The Tribune board includes three disgruntled representatives of the Chandler family that once owned The Times, and they think the Tribune survival strategy of buying back stock and slashing $200 million more out of the budget is a loser.

Since the Chandlers owe Los Angeles for selling off the paper to out-of-towners (can anyone imagine a New York Times owned by someone in Chicago?), they ought to be lining up a local buyer and arguing that the Tribune company can make a fortune by selling The Times.

Will this be easy? No, and it won't be cheap either, but we need the Chandlers and the local big shots to spark an investor revolt. Like I said Wednesday, I favor the St. Petersburg Times model, as does Eli Broad, in which one or more local nonprofit foundations would own the newspaper in conjunction with a journalism school.

"Come on," Riordan called out over lunch, making a plea to his no-show friends. "The city needs a home-grown owner of the L.A. Times."

I may too, after this column. If you don't see me back in this space, come by the Original Pantry and I'll get you the best table in the house.

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