Before he left, the Tribune story took a twist that has yet to be resolved. The Chandlers, worried about their declining dividend checks, forced the company to consider takeover offers. The winner was Sam Zell, a Chicago investor known for buying depressed assets and riding them to huge profits. At first, his new staff was optimistic that Zell would stop the bleeding. But he proved to be even less of a friend than his predecessors. In one notorious incident, he barked “fuck you” at a female photographer who dared to ask about news values. He mocked his editors, and in a visit to the Times shocked staffers when he announced that the paper would start taking ads from strip clubs because, as he said, “it’s un-American not to like pussy.”
With Zell came executives of dubious value, like CEO Randy Michaels, who resigned after The New York Times exposed his boorish treatment of women, and chief innovation officer Lee Abrams, roundly mocked for his rambling, poorly punctuated all-staff e-mails. But the bigger issue is that the Zell deal burdened Tribune with huge debt, adding pressure for even more cuts. O’Shea’s reporting on this point makes for instructive reading on the perils facing today’s media business. His book joins that conversation, while avoiding the neatly wrapped solutions that some might want.
He writes in summation that “the real question we face is not whether we still have newspapers; the real question is, will we still have journalism—not aggregated content gathered to foster ad sales—but hard-hitting, time consuming investigative and analytical reporting.” Of course, hard-hitting analysis is alive and well online and more easily accessible now to a reader in, say, Fresno than in the days when a wire editor at The Fresno Bee chose a few stories for inside pages. Investigative reporting is still as difficult and expensive as ever, but innovators like ProPublica and California Watch are trying to fill in the gaps left by the weakening of newspapers.
Some are weaker than others. His old paper, the Chicago Tribune, has become “sophomoric, parochial, and superficial,” O’Shea writes. He cancelled his subscription. The Times, meanwhile, is far smaller in size and paid circulation than it once was. Still, this year the paper won a pair of Pulitzer prizes.
O’Shea has proven himself adaptable. He now runs the Chicago News Cooperative, a website that also produces local news stories for the Chicago edition of The New York Times. One of his fundraising stops was the McCormick Foundation, where he had to pitch David Hiller, the publisher who fired him in Los Angeles. O’Shea didn’t get the money.