Here’s what REALLY killed the Tribune Company

Photo from NY Times, by Charles Rex Arbogast for Associated Press: In Chicago on Dec. 20, 2007, Sam Zell discussed his purchase of the Tribune Company. David Hiller of The Los Angeles Times, left; Randy Michaels, a newly appointed corporate chief; and Scott Smith of The Chicago Tribune listened.

UPDATE: Tribune Company bankruptcy talks break down again

From today’s Chicago Tribune: While a court-ordered mediator has yet to abandon the effort to find a friendly settlement, the adversaries remain deeply divided, suggesting the messy case promises to get messier as the sides hunker down for a fight.

“It’s kind of a free-for-all right now,” said one source in the middle of the fray. “Some parties have really dug in the heels.”

It won’t help matters, sources on all sides of the case said, that The New York Times published a front-page story Wednesday highly critical of Tribune Chief Executive Randy Michaels and the culture his team has created at the company.

• • •


A little more than one month after the Brooklyn Eagle was heroically resurrected in 1962, it lucked out: New York’s other newspapers were shuttered by a 114-day-long strike, and the Eagle was the only “regular” daily newspaper that continued to publish (poetic justice, perhaps, since the Eagle was originally killed by a Newspaper Guild strike in 1955). As a result, it made tons of money, operating with maximum ad volume and printing to its limit. Yet less than three months after the strike ended, the Eagle closed broke.

Robert W. Farrell, who engineered the resurrection but did not have financial control, claimed that what killed the Eagle was that, in the end, it was being run by “people who never sweated out a deadline.” Meaning people who did not know the newspaper business.

In a nutshell, that’s what killed the Tribune Company. (Yes, I know, it’s not totally dead, only mostly dead and that it, like the zombies in Night of the Living Dead, continues to ravage whatever’s around it in order to “live” for even a few moments more.)

On Wednesday, the NY Times devoted more than one-and-one-half print edition pages to a story on Tribune. Link here — it’s a must-read heartbreaker.

“They threw out what Tribune had stood for, quality journalism and a real brand integrity, and in just a year, pushed it down into mud and bankruptcy,” said Ken Doctor, a newspaper analyst with Outsell Inc., a consulting firm. “And it’s been wallowing there for the last 20 months with no end in sight.”

But there’s more [from other sources quoted by the Times]:

“This is a collection of carnival workers … They were like 14-year-old boys — no boundaries at all — but with money and power.”

The Times reports:

Based on interviews with more than 20 employees and former employees of Tribune, [Chief Executive Randy] Michaels’s and his executives’ use of sexual innuendo, poisonous workplace banter and profane invective shocked and offended people throughout the company. Tribune Tower, the architectural symbol of the staid company, came to resemble a frat house, complete with poker parties, juke boxes and pervasive sex talk…

“We are in the office of [Col. Robert R. McCormick] the guy who ran the company from the 1920s to 1955,” [Tribune security chief John D.] Phillips wrote on his Facebook page. “It’s normally a shrine. We pretty much desecrated it with gambling, booze and cigars.”

Times were rough. The economy, the internet. You know. But they were made worse for Tribune Company — whose newspaper properties include the once-great LA Times, Baltimore Sun and Hartford Courant, as well as the Chicago Tribune — by the clowns running the show in Chicago.

“Less than a year after [Sam] Zell bought the company, it tipped into bankruptcy, listing $7.6 billion in assets against a debt of $13 billion, making it the largest bankruptcy in the history of the American media industry,” said the Times report, by David Carr. “More than 4,200 people have lost jobs since the purchase, while resources for the Tribune newspapers and television stations have been slashed…

“And while many media companies tried cost-cutting and new tactics in the last few years, Tribune was particularly aggressive in planning publicity stunts and in mixing advertising with editorial material. Those efforts alienated longtime employees and audiences in the communities its newspapers served.”


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