Posts Tagged ‘The Chicago Tribune’

For a decade or more now, people in and out of the newspaper business have been trying to figure out what caused the bottom to drop out of the industry.

Gardner Cowles Sr. and Florence Cowles

Was it the rise of the Internet? The cashing in by all but a couple of the renowned newspaper families, such as the Binghams in Louisville, the Cowleses in Des Moines, the Chandlers in Los Angeles? The rapacious demands of Wall Street after many major newspapers were snapped up by publicly owned companies?

All of those and other factors have been fingered by various experts as the bogeyman that did in a lot of top-tier newspapers.

And now comes another viewpoint, presented by Jim O’Shea, a former top editor at both The Chicago Tribune and The Los Angeles Times. O’Shea’s new book, “The Deal From Hell: How Moguls and Wall Street Plundered Great American Newspapers,” was reviewed in the SundayBusiness section of this week’s New York Times.

The reviewer, Bryan Burrough, says this:

“Mr. O’Shea argues that what’s killing newspapers isn’t the Internet and other forces, but rather the way newspaper executives responded to those forces.”

Burrough goes on to quote from O’Shea’s book: “The lack of investment, the greed, incompetence, corruption, hypocrisy and downright arrogance of people who put their interests ahead of the public’s are responsible for the state of the newspaper industry today.”

Now that’s an angry and eloquent sentence.

O’Shea backs up his assertion largely by chronicling a newspaper deal that went terribly wrong and wrecked what once had been two great chains — Tribune (Chicago Tribune and others) and Times-Mirror (Los Angeles Times and others). Suffice it to say the papers ended up in the hands of a goofy Chicago investor named Sam Zell, who knew nothing about newspapers and who hired a bunch of former radio DJs and executives to run the chain.

He’s now out, but the Tribune chain is in bankruptcy, and the 10 daily papers in the Tribune chain are a shadow of their former selves.

Papers like The Kansas City Star, the Omaha World-Herald and the St. Louis-Post Dispatch are lucky in that they have managed to avoid the clutches of thoroughly greedy people…although they, too, have fallen far and fast.

I have a different perspective on the implosion of newspapers. I think the crumbling of demand for the daily, local paper was as inevitable as the rise of “riverboat casinos.”

The winds of change started rather slowly but accelerated to the point that we in the newspaper business (I’m a 37-year veteran) were swept up and away, and there was little we could have done to prevent it.

The advent of the Internet? Yes, that definitely played a part. But what set the stage for that?

The pace of society was already gaining steam before the Internet came along. More people were relying on TV for information and entertainment, people were working longer hours, more and more women were going into the work force, people had less time to read newspapers and they were less interested in reading newspapers.

Ask any circulation supervisor at just about any paper in the country and he or she will tell you this sentence is what they hear most often when people call in to cancel their subscriptions: “I don’t have time to read it.”

We in the business couldn’t grasp the climate change because writing the paper and reading it was our business; it was what our lives revolved around. You bet we had time to read the paper; that’s where most of our story ideas came from.

Yes, some greedy people got in there and made the situation a lot worse and sullied the reputations of some formerly high-class papers. But, in retrospect, I don’t think anything could have stopped the overall implosion. Even if we had reacted quickly and embraced the Internet and started charging for online content at the outset, I think circulation, advertising and readership still would have plummeted.

I mentioned that it was the demand for the local, daily paper that hit the skids. Meanwhile, national papers like The Times, the Wall Street Journal and USA Today are still doing relatively well. And even though the New York Times Company (NYT) is a public company, the Sulzberger family still holds a majority interest and has the resources to run the paper as it should be run, putting lots and lots of money into the editorial side.

Many people, like me, who still need a substantive paper with a heavy emphasis on world and national news have gravitated to The Times. I take The Star, which I read first, and then I turn to The Times. I’ve got the time (retired five years ago), and my interest in newspapers has never flagged.

But the time is a luxury that most people don’t have, and the interest is… well, it’s an interest that many people just don’t have any longer.

I’m not saying that’s bad, that’s just the way it is, and that’s what’s responsible for the state of the newspaper industry today.

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Another day, another development and time once again for Kansas City Star employees to be thankful that they’re not working at a paper owned by Chicago-based Tribune Company.

On Wednesday, Tribune Company, which publishes The Chicago Tribune and several other major newspapers, indefinitely suspended Chief Innovation Officer Lee Abrams because of a company-wide memo he sent out on Monday, linking to lewd videos.

The Chicago Tribune reported today that the e-mail “spurred a rash of employee complaints.”

The Trib’s story noted that the Abrams incident followed by less than a week a New York Times front-page story that said Tribune Company managers who took over after an ownership sale in December 2007  had fostered a sexist “frat house” in Tribune Tower, which houses Tribune corporate offices as well as The Chicago Tribune. 

I blogged yesterday about The New York Times story, a well-reported and illuminating piece by David Carr about a once-proud company that has lost its way.

Randy Michaels, chief executive of Tribune Company, said in an e-mail announcing the suspension: “Lee recognizes that the video was in extremely bad taste and that it offended employees…This is the kind of serious mistake that can’t be tolerated; we intend to address it promptly and forcefully.”

It was none other than Michaels, however, who at one time was associated with 61 Country radio in Kansas City, who signed off a couple of years ago on an eye-opening rewrite of the employee handbook.

“Working at Tribune means accepting that you might hear a word that you, personally, might not use,” the new handbook said. “You might experience an attitude you don’t share. You might hear a joke that you don’t consider funny. That is because a loose, fun, nonlinear atmosphere is important to the creative process…

“This should be understood, should not be a surprise and not considered harassment.”

In light of this week’s developments, I guess Michaels, Abrams and other top managers got a little more of a “nonlinear” climate than they wanted.

Today’s Chicago Tribune story says Abrams apologized Tuesday “to everyone who was offended” by the Monday e-mail memo, which contained a link to a video newscast parody labeled “Sluts.” The video included female nudity.

Like Michaels and many others who became top Tribune managers in 2008, Abrams has a background in radio. He was chief programming officer for XM Satellite Radio (now Sirius-XM) before moving to Tribune Company.

A Forbes blogger asked yesterday how Abrams “could have been so reckless as to send a company-wide memo touting a lewd video at a time when he and his fellow executives were already under fire for behaving like frat boys?”

The blogger quoted Dan Neil, a Pulitzer Prize-winning former columnist for the Tribune-owned Los Angeles Times, as saying, “Lee Abrams is an idiot.”

Neil, who now writes for the Wall Street Journal, said that part of Abrams’ job was to send out weekly “Think Pieces,”  theoretically aimed at boosting morale among the troops.

“No one could ever figure out what those Monday morning missives meant,” Neil was quoted as saying. “And all I can say is that at least one of them finally had a positive effect.”

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David Carr, media reporter for The New York Times, has had two intriguing pieces within the last week — a front-page news story about the implosion of the Tribune Company and a column in which he explored the “vanishing journalistic divide.”

In the column, Carr deftly used his experience in reporting and writing the Tribune story to help make his point about the ever-hastening confluence of new media and old-school journalism.

Let’s take it from the top.

Phase one.

If you think The Kansas City Star has fallen a long way, consider the plight of The Chicago Tribune and the other papers in the Tribune chain, including The Los Angeles Times, the Baltimore Sun and The Orlando Sentinel. As recently as about 10 years ago, The Chicago Tribune and The Los Angeles Times were considered to be among the country’s premier newspapers. 

Like other newspaper companies (it also owns TV stations and WGN America), Tribune fell on lean times and began unraveling financially. Publicly owned, it was sold in 2007 to a group headed by Sam Zell, described by Carr as “a billionaire deal maker,” for a price of $8.2 billion. Thing is, though, the way Zell structured the deal, he only put out $315 million of his own money.

Then he brought in some radio-industry executives to run the show. One of those executives, Randy Michaels, showed some of the old Tribune hands early on that it was a new day and a new game. As Carr tells it, Michaels ran into several other senior colleagues at a hotel next to the Tribune Tower in Chicago. Shortly after he sat down in the bar, Zell said “watch this” and proceeded to offer the waitress $100 to show him her breasts.

“The group sat dumfounded,” Carr wrote.

Michaels proceeded to conduct a management make-over, putting more than 20 former associates from the radio business in key positions. One of the management team’s first moves was to rewrite the employee handbook.

“Working at Tribune means accepting that you might hear a word that you, personally, might not use,” the new handbook said. “You might experience an attitude you don’t share. You might hear a joke that you don’t consider funny. That is because a loose, fun, nonlinear atmosphere is important to the creative process…

“This should be understood, should not be a surprise and not considered harassment.”

They might has well have put out a sign that said, “Let it all hang out!”

It didn’t take long for the boss himself, Zell, to throw at Chicago Tribune Editor Ann Marie Lipinski one of those words that she, personally, probably would not use.

In June 2008, while urging her to more aggressively pursue a story that he was interested in, Zell told Lipinski, “Don’t be a pussy.”

Lipinski, who had been the editor since 2001, resigned a month later.

Before 2008 was out, the company sought bankruptcy protection, listing $7.6 billion in assets and debts of $13 billion. And the financial woes continue. In the first half of this year, The Chicago Tribune’s weekday circulation was down nearly 10 percent, while The Los Angeles Times lost nearly 15 percent of its weekday circulation.

Zell remains chairman of the board but is no longer involved in day-to-day operations.

Phase two.

David Carr

In his column on Monday, Carr talked about the migration of print journalists to Web sites. His peg was the announcement that Howard Kurtz, long-time media reporter for The Washington Post, had resigned to become Washington bureau chief for The Daily Beast, which Carr described as “a two-year-old toddler of the new digital press.”

“More and more,” Carr wrote, “media outlets are becoming a federation of individual brands like Mr. Kurtz. Journalism is starting to look like sports, where a cast of role players serves as a platform and context for highly paid, high-impact players. And those who cross over, after years of pushing copy through the print apparatus, will experience the allure of knocking some copy into WordPress and sending it out into the world to fend for itself.”

And yet, despite its surging popularity, Carr said, digital journalism doesn’t generate a thimbleful of revenue, compared to newspaper companies. 

“The reason that newspapers put all the white paper out on the street is that we get a lot of green paper back in return,” he said. “Put out all the pixels you want, even ones that render scoops, and you will still receive pennies in return.”

Then, Carr proceeded to talk about the thrill involved in piecing together the Tribune story, working on it for months, and finally seeing it “land hard,” lighting up Twitter accounts and generating hundreds of online comments.

The ability to “land hard,” he went on, isn’t limited to The Times: “All over the country, daily regional newspapers in very diminished circumstances similarly still manage to set the civic agenda even as they struggle.”

In Kansas City, of course, The Star — beleaguered and buffeted, scorned and dismissed by many — continues to set the local civic agenda. Not Tony’s Kansas City, not KC Confidential and most certainly not JimmyCsays.

“Yes, you can make news working in your pajamas and running stuff past your cat and now one else,” Carr concluded. “But even in 2010, when a print product is viewed as a quaint artifact of a bygone age, there is something about that process, about all those many hands, about the permanence of print, that makes a story resonate in a way that can’t be measured in digital metrics. I love a hot newsbreak on the Web as much as the next guy, but on some days, for some stories, there is still no school like the old school.”

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