On This Tribune Piece

The whining about the horror becomes tiresome.

Behind the collapse of the Tribune deal and the bankruptcy is a classic example of financial hubris. Mr. Zell, a hard-charging real estate mogul with virtually no experience in the newspaper business, decided that a deal financed with heavy borrowing and followed with aggressive cost-cutting could succeed where the longtime Tribune executives he derided as bureaucrats had failed.

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.

“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.”

Spare me stories about the glory days, Springsteen, and spare me the pearl-clutching about the innocence of the Trib being defiled by these pigs. My problem isn’t that this stuff doesn’t suck but that the place was ever some kind of temple of virtue, journalistic or otherwise.

For what it’s worth, the Tribune has always suffered from journalistic arrogance, by which I mean they thought they were better just because they were the Tribune. They had nothing to prove. They were the Tribune. Whatever they did, it would be the final definitive word on the subject. Whatever one of their editors said, it would shape the coverage everybody else would provide or they’d know the reason why.

They acted like the whole city should bend down and kiss their ring just because. They were fat and lazy and occasionally they were good enough to earn the kind of deference they expected as a matter of course, but only occasionally. I can’t say I’m shocked this was Zell’s impression. It was everybody’s. This is what happens to every large company that gets complacent. This is what happens to every big shot who forgets there’s always somebody else out there who wants it more.

As far as the frat-house shit is concerned:

In turn, Mr. Michaels remade Tribune’s management, installing in major positions more than 20 former associates from the radio business — people he knew from his time running Jacor and Clear Channel — a practice that came to be known as “friends and family” at the company.

One of their first priorities was rewriting the employee handbook.

“Working at Tribune means accepting that you might hear a word that you, personally, might not use,” the new handbook warned. “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.” It then added, “This should be understood, should not be a surprise and not considered harassment.”

The new permissive ethos was quickly on display. When Kim Johnson, who had worked with Mr. Michaels as an executive at Clear Channel, was hired as senior vice president of local sales on June 16, 2008, the news release said she was “a former waitress at Knockers — the Place for Hot Racks and Cold Brews,” a jocular reference to a fictitious restaurant chain.

Let’s not be mistaken here. If anyone thinks the pre-Michaels Tribune hired on merit alone, I have a bridge in Alaska to sell you. And far be it from me to defend unfunny jokes about boobies, but everybody’s talking shit about it now because the Tribune is still financially and journalistically fucked. If the Tribune was stuffed full of cash and kicking everybody’s ass in town and wasn’t visibly flailing every which way in desperate search of a trend it could ride to profitability, Michaels’ sexually harrassing profane shit would be a sign of his lunch-pail mentality and old-fashioned hard-workingness and it would be charming and funny to the media bigwigs and everyone else would keep their mouths shut. Everybody at the Tower would be having a chuckle over returning to the good old days of poker, pin-ups and cigars in the city room. The Tribune’s in a hole, though, so it’s gross and unprofessional and suddenly we care.

When you’re winning, nobody really cares how it’s happening or who has to get stepped on to make that happen. When you’re losing, things like asking a waitress to show you her tits gets, how shall we say, less of a pass than it used to. That’s not right, but tell me I’m wrong. I hate everyone involved in this story, pretty much, but I will say what it definitively says is that the Internet isn’t the problem. That’s farther than Carr is willing to go in his story, but it’s pretty much the inescapable conclusion. I wouldn’t hire these people to bake me a potato, but those bloggers who link to stuff are destroying a noble craft.


6 thoughts on “On This Tribune Piece

  1. 1. The piece was weird. Especially the part about the exec and the employee (maybe) getting it on in public, which seemed kind of tacked on to the parts about sexual harassment. I care a lot more about the beancounters who burned the place down.
    2. The reaction was weird. There was a little bit new in the piece, but most of it is already pretty well known if you’ve been following the story. I don’t see what was so devastating about it that hasn’t been devastating for awhile now.

  2. As usual, couldn’t agree with you more.
    As an aside – I saw a report that Fox and Friends was scammed into reporting that the LAPD was purchasing rocket packs, but had concerns about the police wearing rocket packs colliding with their choppers. Now THAT is journalism.
    As a tangent to your story, I see just another example of how we hold “a businessman” as a sacrosanct icon; a businessman can run any business. They don’t need to know the particular business. Because they are above the others.
    Well, I can loose $100 million just as well as the best exec at AIG !
    As I remember it, the trend really started in the 70s when folks would get an MBA and immediately go out and buy a failing company (of course, heavily leveraged / massive borrowed capital). They would make a profit by squeezing every last drop of blood out of the business and thereby make a short term profit at the cost of long term profitability and R&D.

  3. When I read this story my first thought was ‘I want to know what Athenae has to say about it.”
    Any of course you are right about the “when your rich people think your really know” (as the song from Fiddler on the Roof goes)
    Reading about the millions of dollars in bonuses when they laid of 4,000 people is sick, but for the shareholders of a public company it’s never about employment. It’s about the stock price. And if the stock is good, well okay then.
    But the real problems need to be laid at the feet of bloggers. If they weren’t ou their swearing on the internet none of this would have happened.
    BTW, I love the euphemisms in the Times article. They are so delicate.

  4. You’re bound to get a big head when your only competition is casually referred to as the “Slum-Times.”
    But, this is the paper run by the Colonel, Robert McCormack, whose campaign largess gave us none other than Tailgunner Joe McCarthy.
    They were tarnished long, long before Sam Zell showed up with his credit card and his crew of class clowns.

  5. The way Tribune has totally decimated the Los Angeles Times is sad. What used to be a great paper with great sports and arts coverage and international/national news that just below that of the NYT and WAPO is now so thin that I can read all the stories that interest me in 20 minutes at lunch.
    My best friend works there as an editor and he is just scathing about the management that was brought in after Tribune bought the paper. “All they cared about is the Cubs and golf” is one of his observations.

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