In the military you shut up and follow orders; otherwise, things fall apart. Still, there can come a point when the strategy is a demonstrable loser. Then, sometimes, it is the generals who must go, or maybe the secretary of defense.
That’s true in corporations, too. When the Tribune Company orders manpower cuts, publishers and editors either follow through or hit the road. That’s the way it works. Yet there can come a Rumsfeld moment, and Tribune has reached it. That’s why we’d like to see the company sell itself out of the newspaper business.
Tribune has had tough luck. It paid dearly—$8.3 billion—for Times Mirror and then the dot-com bubble promptly burst and sank the stock market; Newsday contributed a circulation scandal; the IRS ruled against the company in a $1 billion dispute; and the courts sent the FCC’s plan to relax cross-ownership rules—which Tribune had counted on—back to the drawing board.
But to paraphrase Donald Rumsfeld, you fight the war you’ve got. Between its eleven dailies—including the Hartford Courant, the Baltimore Sun, The South Florida Sun-Sentinel, the Orlando Sentinel, Newsday, and the Los Angles Times—and its twenty-four TV stations, Tribune claims to reach 80 percent of U.S. households. The idea was to use that size to the company’s advantage. First, Tribune would use its TV-print overlaps to create editorial and advertising synergies; second, it would sell national advertising based on its big footprints in New York, Chicago, and L.A.; third, the merger would create efficiencies and the company could cut costs. But Tribune’s effort at merging the two cultures was ham-handed at best. And national advertisers, it turned out, didn’t see how those three markets made sense as a buy. The only thing left was the easy part—cutting costs.
Good editors will cut costs when it is part of a sensible business plan. But in time Tribune appeared to be simply harvesting the assets of its properties. Newsday and others were picked nearly clean and Tribune began turning to L.A. again this fall. To Jeffrey Johnson and Dean Baquet, the former publisher and former editor of the Los Angeles Times, Tribune must have sounded like the motorcycle thugs in Hunter Thompson’s first book, Hell’s Angels. In Thompson’s telling, the Angels come up to you in a bar and say, Give me a cigarette. Then: Give me another cigarette. Then: Give me the pack. Give me your shirt. At some point you realize you might as well fight.
Public ownership of newspapers no longer makes the kind of sense it made when the industry was rapidly shedding labor costs thanks to new technology, and when the money that stockholders poured in was invested partly in editorial. Today newspapers need owners with the patience and the guts to ride through this valley of transition, with its attendant economic uncertainty, and find the next high ground, which will probably have something to do with the Internet.
Without such leadership they are in danger, and Baquet’s former boss, John Carroll, pointed out the stakes in a recent speech: “There are those who romanticize the decline of big media as a return to our roots as an agrarian nation informed by small newspapers and pamphleteers,” he said. “Such nostalgia fails to take into account the across-the-board growth of institutions since those early days. Government has grown. Business has grown. The instruments of public relations and of propaganda have grown. That is why, as a counterweight, we need strong journalistic institutions.”
Tribune has great resources, but those resources aren’t doing much public good. The company seems less than the sum of its parts. And so, like Rumsfeld, it should go. We’ll take our chances with the gaggle of billionaires who are lining up to buy those newspapers. Some of them may turn out to be pirates (see Santa Barbara). But others will be citizens who understand that those dailies are not mere pieces of an economic puzzle but great living institutions rooted in the lives of their cities.