Willes shook up newspapering but misread its key brand value

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The good people of Los Angeles view Tribune Co.'s purchase of Times Mirror Co. as a blow to their civic pride and are mourning the passing of the Chandler family era.

But no one in the media industry is shedding tears over the consequential departure of Mark Willes. Dubbed the "Cereal Killer" because of his cost-cutting ways at General Mills, Willes in the end was found guilty of attempted murder of a brand.

By compromising the editorial integrity of Times Mirror's flagship Los Angeles Times, he came perilously close to choking off the paper's lifeline, its connection with readers.

The Chandler heirs sold the paper out from under Willes for the money, not to punish his transgressions. The end result is the same: Willes said he will not stay on a minute longer than needed. Word is L.A. Times staffers immediately queued up outside his door to help pack boxes.

There are many words to describe what Mark Willes attempted to do, but The New York Times put it so eloquently it's worth a reprint: "He brought an almost religious fervor to his quest to streamline the company, challenging the newspaper industry to reinvent itself, increase its audience and toss out its shibboleths."

Admirable goals, all. The newspaper industry is in sore need of fresh thinking. The problem is the shibboleth (I love that word!) Willes most fervently sought to toss out -- the separation of editorial and advertising concerns -- is the baby, not the bathwater.

Let's note right away this deal makes sense on other levels. A comment by Internet guru Esther Dyson to the effect that no one cares if one newspaper buys another smacks of digerati arrogance and misses the point entirely.

Traditional media forms will be transformed by the Internet, but history shows none will disappear. By merging, Tribune and Times Mirror are better able to compete in a consolidated marketplace. Times Mirror's properties will also benefit from Tribune's Internet learnings. Tribune is a company that has been actively placing new-media bets for years.

Not to stray too far from the original point, but the deal also should drive another nail into the coffin of federal government rules that forbid the creation of new media cross-ownership situations, where one company owns a newspaper and a TV station in the same market.

There are many misguided souls in the media business who dismiss the importance of "church-state" separation and take for granted its absence on the Internet. While it's true many of the old media rules no longer apply, this is one rule that's vital to the survival of any media property.

If advertisers are able to influence editorial coverage, the bond with the audience is smashed. No audience, no advertisers. No revenue, no profits. It's a basic business model.

When Willes' plan to lower the walls between the editorial and business departments was first revealed, there were warnings from media pundits. But they were dismissed as the self-righteous grumblings of journalists clinging desperately to a dated notion.

Then a potential danger became a real one. In a move former L.A. Times Publisher Otis Chandler labeled "unbelievably stupid," the paper agreed to share ad dollars with the subject of a special issue of its Sunday magazine. Willes later admitted the deal with L.A.'s Staples Center sports arena was a mistake, but he still seemed not to fully comprehend the uproar.

Modern journalists do need to be more marketing-savvy. The front page of a newspaper is no different than the packaging of any brand, and needs to be designed to attract the most buyers. Like any good brand, it also needs to deliver on its promise.

As a marketer, Willes understood that. His fatal mistake was not realizing that, in the case of media brands, editorial integrity is the most essential ingredient of the promise.

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