No, I don’t think they have. When Sam Zell bought the Tribune company, he had the best collection of newspapers in the country, and then they began dismantling that. Today you can’t say it’s the best collection of papers. Even though the company recently emerged from bankruptcy and ditched much of its debt, it had nonetheless suffered a severe loss of revenue and is a company with diminished assets, including its newspapers. Cash flows are off steeply, too, as are profits.
A lot of the reviewers of The Deal From Hell pointed out that even though you rightfully center on the problems with the executives at Tribune, even companies owned by strong families with a commitment to journalism—The Washington Post, The New York Times—also made substantial cutbacks to their editorial staffs. Are the troubles you pinpointed at Tribune unique or part of a wider industry problem?
First of all, I did not say you didn’t have to cut. My argument was, if you’re going to cut, you have to reinvest the money in a way that would generate revenue. At Tribune, what they were doing is that they would pass the savings back to Chicago, and then that would be used to bolster their earnings. Other companies did this. The Washington Post diversified their revenue base with Kaplan, and while that’s having it’s challenges now, that revenue probably saved them.
If you were in charge of Tribune now, given the situation with the spinoff, and the assets they put there, what steps would you take to ensure the continued viability of the papers?
I can’t say there’s one solution for all of them. I believe that the future of the newspapers is in becoming content companies. The fundamental value of a news organization is the ability to generate content, and the companies that win and survive are going to be those that invest in their ability to provide content. Tribune, however, has disinvested in content, by cutting the editorial staffs. Looking forward, I think each market you have to look at individually. in LA, I would look at making the Times a state newspaper. By covering California aggressively, you’re in effect a national newspaper, because California is bigger than most nations. If I were in Chicago and Florida, I would do the same thing and make it regional. if I were in some of these smaller markets, like Hartford, you then want to look at if I can create an online operation with a weekly magazine, and evolve into that over the next five to seven years, because printing the paper is the real cost, and papers often have limited other options for savings. As you saw in New Orleans when that happens, it can blow up in your face too if you don’t handle it right.
You just said in the small markets you might want to cut back on the newsprint. Advance Publications did that, and it caused massive outrage. How should they have handled it?
Advance in New Orleans just came out and said, we’re going to three days a week, screw you, and it was accompanied by steep editorial cuts. Meanwhile, when they did cut delivery days in Detroit a few years ago, they said, “We’re doing this so we don’t have to lay off more reporters.” Every paper in the near future is going to be facing that decision, because if you’re delivering a paper for people, and costs you $3 a day and you’re charging them a dollar, you rely on advertising to make up that other $2, and that isn’t going to come back. You either have to create a new revenue stream to make up for that, or you have to cut delivery. Additionally, digital advertising has to mature, so you can transition more evenly to a combined print digital product rather than a newspaper that’s got a digital website.
Do you think issues might arise with some of these new revenue streams damaging the credibility of the paper?
Let’s take branded content. There are issues with it, but you need to sit down and say, “Let’s try and do it in a way that doesn’t diminish the news organization,” because if you diminish the credibility of the news organization, nobody’s going to believe your branded content—no one’s even going to look at it. All a news organization has got is credibility.
Last year the Chicago Tribune was caught using Journatic to produce outsourced, semi-automated news. Do you feel this was reflective of a continued Zell-type management outlook or reflective of broader problems in newspaper management elsewhere?