Does it Matter That the Tribune Co. Is Run By Frat Dicks?


New York Times media-beat writer David Carr has a front-page takedown today of the old-boy managers that Sam Zell brought in to run the media giant Tribune Co., where they apparently carried on like Sterling Cooper executives without the charm, Mid-Century Modern, and managerial ju-jitsu. Here's a representative sample:

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 [Randy] 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.

A woman who used to work at the Tribune Company in a senior position, but did not want to be identified because she now worked at another media company in Chicago, said that Mr. Michaels and Marc Chase, who was brought in to run Tribune Interactive, had a loud conversation on an open balcony above a work area about the sexual suitability of various employees. […]

The Chicago Tribune's circulation continues to slide, with weekday circulation down 9.8 percent in the first half of 2010. The Los Angeles Times is in worse shape, having lost 14.7 percent of its weekday circulation in the period. (Over all, the industry lost 8.7 percent weekly circulation in the period.) […]

Despite the company's problems, the managers have been rewarded handsomely.

There are more lurid tales on all of the above topics throughout. The Tribune's typically ham-handed response is here.

My biases here are all-encompassing–I used to work at the L.A. Times (though not technically under Zell), I root actively for managerial behavior that makes the newsroom there uncomfortable, and have a distressing tendency to give the benefit of the doubt to crazy rich people who take a flyer on the newspaper biz. And I'm friendly with Senor Carr.

That said, although some of the antics described might even raise an eyebrow hair at the not-ready-for-sensitive-ears Reason office, and although maybe 99% of journalists who have worked under Zell are today saying "SEE??," there are IMO three hugely undercovered media stories as regards the Zell-era Times. They are:

1) Despite the persistent fever dreams of Nikki Finke and the newsroom, who yearned for a benevolent local billionaire hero to deliver them from evil, Sam Zell was literally the only person willing to make a bet on a beleaguered newspaper company. People love to mock how little skin he had in the game–infamously, just $315 million of an $8.2 billion purchase–but that in itself is a telling indicator of just how unattractive these properties are. Zell's failure (and the immediate cultural hostility with which he was greeted) limits the ownership options for companies that don't have very many left.

2) There isn't a single management team that Spring Street hasn't despised since the (over-)sainted Otis Chandler exited the scene three decades ago. If I had a dollar for every word written in the Columbia Journalism Review about the malodorous new publisher of the L.A. Times, well, I probably wouldn't be writing blog posts on Wednesday nights!

3) And the most undercovered L.A. Times media story of all? The paper, as Brian Doherty, Katherine Mangu-Ward, and even a reluctant Tim Cavanaugh have all recently noted here, has been bringing it of late, plunging into real and impactful tough-nosed coverage of local power structures, while taking the whole "website that publishes a newspaper" thing seriously enough that both traffic and quality have grown through the roof.

Did that happen in spite of Zell? Because of him, at least in part? Now that would be a media story that would interest me beyond the rubbernecking pleasure of hearing about frat-boy antics by managers who never bothered learning the native dialect. Entrenched newsroom cultures are, because of the Success Curse and other problems, almost impossible things to displace or significantly change. If the L.A. Times has changed a key part of its culture–and I do mean if; I have no inside info, and I no longer read it every day–then that has more long-term significance to the news industry than some buffoon making titty jokes and signing lavish executive bonuses at yet another sinking media ship.