Then, for Tribune, deus ex machina arrived in the form of a stubby, fabulously wealthy real estate baron with a taste for shocking quotes, big parties for his buds, and fast motorcycles: Sam Zell. He put $300 million of his own money on the table, cobbled together $12 billion in debt and bought out all the public shareholders.
It did not work.
Zell installed an array of former radio executives who seemed to take advice only from one another. The company was not producing enough cash to pay interest on its debts, so Tribune was in bankruptcy in short order, where it remained at the time of this writing. Zell’s minions have either been defenestrated after dubious behaviors of all kinds became public, or are on their way out. Morale, already shattered by rounds of buyouts and dead stock prices, fell into a pit.
We now know with certainty why publishing and broadcasting are such different creations, and why the clown pirates who do so well creating “morning zoos” and other entertainments for listeners on one side are such disasters on the other.
Perhaps worse, the Zell era sliced even more weight from Tribune’s reputation, already suffering as it pushed through the same staff cuts and budget slashes that hit the rest of the newspaper business. Zell has announced he will play no role in Tribune after it emerges from bankruptcy. People applauded this news.
Companies in bankruptcy rarely disclose much information on their condition. But what has been released shows that through mid-2009, Tribune did not do well. In the first half of that year, its cash dropped by $50 million and its revenue declined by about 23 percent. Circulation on the home front (and afar in Los Angeles, Baltimore, and elsewhere) continued its slide.
People who are aware of Tribune newspaper culture put great significance in the number 500,000. Not too many decades ago, that was the measure beneath which daily circulation would simply never be allowed to drop. Now the Chicago Tribune has to look up to see the bottom of it. In the past year, daily circulation declined 5.2 percent, to 441,508, and Sunday circulation dropped 4.4 percent, to 768,073.
All of this transpired while the media world was mutating its business models. Tribune was actually far ahead of the curve in the world of Internet news, but turned its back on the idea of maintaining a robust website when it became clear it wasn’t going to provide much revenue very quickly. Instead, the company pushed a collection of Web-based products that were more about marketing than about news. That changed later, but not quickly enough at any of the Tribune properties.
Everything about the news playing field changed while Tribune was wrestling with its own budget and profit pressures, first, and Zell and his unusual executives and the bankruptcy, second. The distractions over a period of four or five years were severe and disruptive.
Where to Go From Here?
Start with that simple question, “What is Tribune about?”
The answer should be, “Tribune is about news.” Every one of your thoughts should flow from that conviction. To be sure, top executives in the pre-Zell era were not (with a couple of noteworthy exceptions) from the world of news. But they didn’t hate it. They were always willing to listen to it. Most of them understood it was important. The public need and right to know were not viewed as quaint, outmoded ideas.
They were aggressive.
In quick order, you must revive that aggression and rebuild that connection with news. That notion is not romantic. It is a business proposition constructed on one assumption: people still want to know what is happening, perhaps not the way Tribune told them in the past, but they still want to know. Almost everyone else in traditional media is abandoning the idea of serious news coverage. Local TV budgets are squeezed. Radio is almost totally talk. A wide and promising field is opening up where competition used to be.