Los Angeles Times Publisher Mark Willes

Taking stock of people and ideas in the news.
Oct. 19 1997 3:30 AM

Los Angeles Times Publisher Mark Willes

In praise of the "cereal killer."

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Willes is an optimist. He's a proselytizer of newspapers. According to those who know him, he has learned why newspapers are a public trust since his unfortunate cereal interview. (He has forsworn cereal analogies.) Other papers are shrinking content; Willes wants to add sections and features. Other papers fear controversy; he proposes newspaper "crusades." His ideas may be terrible--some of them certainly are terrible--but at least they are new.

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Willes' boldest goal: to raise the Times circulation from 1 million to 1.5 million. No one thinks he can do it. Industry analyst John Morton says it would be "a miracle" if he pulled it off. But everyone wants him to try, because only new readers will save the industry in the long run. Willes recently halved the price of the Times to 25 cents to reach nonsubscribers. He's launched a huge ad campaign. The Times added 47,000 readers last year, more than any newspaper in the country--and about the same number the New York Times lost.

To add half a million readers, or even half that number, Willes will need to steal subscribers from the 18 other newspapers in the Los Angeles area, including the Orange County Register and the Los Angeles Daily News. This raises an appetizing prospect. The Daily News is up for sale. Rupert Murdoch is rumored to be interested in buying it and turning it into a West Coast version of the New York Post. A circulation-hungry Willes vs. the rapacious Murdoch: That's just the kind of fight the American newspaper industry needs.