On #Tronc, Journalism, and Its Value

When I was in college a couple of journo kids a few years older than me decided to start their own sports publication. They called it N2U, and earnestly explained that it meant they were “into” the “university.”

(It was the ’90s, kids. Everything sounded like this.)

When it launched, the publishers of N2U had to spend half the day on the phone translating the name of their publication for potential advertisers, writers and customers who were like, “It’s what again? You spell it how? Capital N?” They spent so much time, in fact, telling people about the name they ran out of time to tell people how to advertise in it or where to pick it up. It folded, of course, in less than a year.

Fast-forward five years, to my third newspaper. The publisher, a greasy little man nobody ever saw except at all-hands meetings, called us all together to announce that our graphics department was getting a new name. What had been just, you know, the place where advertisers and other media clients got their stuff designed was now going to be called Artworld.pss.

I can’t remember what the .pss stood for. I’m sure it was an acronym for something. It was meant to represent the integration of the platforms of the needs of the synergies of the client experience vertical horizontal paradigm whatever, and the upshot was people were all going to be getting their graphics work done at Artworld.pss.

After about three seconds of stunned silence almost every member of the crowd listening to this guy yammer had christened the new venture ARTWORLD PISS. Because we were 12, but also because we were human and that was 200 percent the most predictable response.

It was so successful, was Artworld.pss, that not a single record of it exists today on the Internet. 

I thought of those ill-fated names today when Tribune Publishing announced its name was going to change to tronc.

Michael Ferro, the chairman of the company, said, “Our rebranding to tronc represents the manner in which we will pool our technology and content resources to execute on our strategy.”

Tribune said earlier on Thursday that shareholders had elected all of the company’s representatives to its board, in what may be a further blow to Gannett’s bid.

The company’s new digital strategy includes the use of artificial intelligence technology for news media applications.

Twitter, naturally, was on it. Twitter has already asked the obvious questions, like “were ‘BLORT’ and ‘SHART’ already trademarked by some other media company?” and “how many consultants were employed to come up with this, and were those consultants paid using money that could otherwise have gone to, I dunno, do the news?”

(I am starting to think one should always vet one’s corporate strategies through Twitter. Just throw ideas out there. See which ones immediately combust in a conflagration made of 4chan and Anonymous and Gamergate.)

I laughed along with the rest of them, but: I know good people at Tribune Publishing. Friends, and ex-friends, people I know to be decent whatever assholes they happen to presently work near. I know lots and lots of good journos, and they deserve better than to watch the place they put their hands and their minds and their blood and their days turn into a national fucking joke.

It’s hard to explain what reporting in the city is to someone who isn’t in it. This essay, by the wonderful Peter Nickeas, comes close. It’s a hard, grinding, miserable job if you do it right. It involves crawling all over this city, this glorious, hopeful, striving, miserable, filthy hellhole asking it to tell you what the worst thing is that it knows. The best thing. The deepest secret.

When I was reporting I used to think I had access to a secret world, to the underpinnings of everything. I was yelled at by cops and lied to by priests and I sat in a woman’s living room and watched her open a box containing the service records of all her dead brothers. A drug dealer invited me to his birthday party once. A nun called me a sinner. A man offered to make me a rabbi. I prayed in mosques and temples and I interviewed the families of murder victims. I saw the strings that held us up, and I saw how thin they were, how frayed.

When you are a reporter your city kind of hates you. Don’t you hate the person who lays you bare, shows the world your secrets? It’s hard to love someone when they’re shouting at the top of their lungs everything they know about you, to anyone who will listen. But you get up and you do it anyway because your city kind of loves you, too, for telling its story back to it, for reminding it what it is.

There are hundreds of people who do this, day in and day out, for Tribune Publishing-owned newspapers and the laziest of them, the laziest person who has ever written a police brief for the smallest paper in the portfolio, that person has worked harder and done more than whoever the living fuck came up with “tronc.”

It’s not just that the name is stupid, though it is. It’s that giving the company a stupid, laughable name and putting out a press release at 4 p.m. on a Thursday, filling said press release with management seminar horseshit about leveraging the strategies of the content of the monetization of the whatever the hell says to everyone who works for that company: Your work means to us exactly this little.

People ruin their lives, reporting and writing and covering the news. They lose friends, they lose sleep, they lose nights and weekends and uninterrupted vacations and unblemished memories and sometimes they lose more than that.

People die, reporting the news. Because reporting the news is more important to them than their lives.

Those people deserve better than “tronc.” They deserve better than 20 years of corporate flailing at every online trend, from the paywall to the hyperlocal to the longform back to the paywall again. They deserve better than hearing, over and over and over, that what they are is not what they think they are but “content curators” and “monetization engines” and they deserve better than hearing that it’s nobody’s fault when they know whose fault it is.

What has happened to newspaper companies in the past two decades is not about “industry shifts” and it’s not about “digital paradigms” and it sure as hell isn’t about Kids Today not reading. Nobody checking Facebook on an iPhone made the Tribune a national joke today, and if there was no internet at all in the world, newspaper companies would still be imploding because stupidity is a constant, whereas technology changes with the times.

It is still possible to run a newspaper well and profitably. You can give the news to people who want to pay for it. And you can pay the people who do that fairly and treat them decently. But in the past 20 years company executives have explicitly not done that, because there were things like “tronc” for them to pour money into.

There were hundreds of consultants and redesigns and endless re-focusing and re-strategizing and for what was spent on corporate retreats, 50 reporters could have covered Englewood and Auburn-Gresham and Hegewisch for YEARS. Reporters wanted to cover the news. They wanted to do the hard stories. And at every turn they were told, there’s no money for that. But there was money for “tronc.”

The people who sleep with the police scanner on, the people who ditch their families at dinner to go chase a quote, the people who are willing to lose friendships because they stand up for the world they see every day, those people deserve to be led by people who understand the value of what they do.

So we can laugh all day long at TRONC THIS, TRONC THAT, TRONC THE WORLD, and believe me, I’m laughing, because somewhere in a box in storage I have a letter from the Tribune saying I couldn’t have an internship there because all I had was a bachelor’s from a state school. I’m laughing, but I’m angry, because this isn’t a joke. Despite what the CEO of the Tribune, I mean tronc, seems to think.


13 thoughts on “On #Tronc, Journalism, and Its Value

  1. reminded me of the late years of United Press International when bureaus were closed, reporters laid off and vice presidents hired. it was heart-breaking.

  2. pss is an Adobe Postscript file extension. It was an attempt to be technologically cutting edge

  3. My former colleague and grad-school classmate Mel Umbarger points out that the Urban Dictionary defines “tronk” as “skank,” and I think that about says it all.

  4. I’m having a hard time picturing Clark Kent writing for “The Daily Tronc.” Words like “tribune” and “planet” and “chronicle” have built-in heft and history. I don’t think re-naming The Chicago Reader “The Glancer” would be a smart, hip thing to do.

  5. This runs rampant through the nonprofit sector, too. I blame it on too many people going to business school, and too many business schools. Other symptoms: belief in “disruption”, and TED talk solutions. Thanks for an inspiring article.

  6. Yes, yes, perceptive piece calling it like it is and for seeing the true nature of the “disruptive” forces that destroyed a 500-year-old industry — its corporate leaders and publishers. So sad and so true just about everywhere there was a decent newspaper, I grew up at a time when New York City had 7 daily newspapers and 3 top regional dailies in the Brooklyn Eagle, L.I. Press and Newsday, And they represented their mission — to be a Journal, Telegram, Press, Newsday etc. But the most egregious error of all was buying the claptrap B-S from Google telling those publishers they needed to get “content” on their site for free, otherwise no one would be aware of who they (the newspapers) were and what they were doing. And they all — without exception — fell for it. And where is Google now? — everywhere. And the newspaper industry? It’s gone to tronc.
    P.S. to Abby: Ditto on Ted Talk and the term “disruption.” They both should be relegated to the ash heap of … well, any ash heap.

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