The media today: Tronc chairman ‘retires’ hours before allegations are published

Monday began with the surprise news that Tronc Chairman Michael Ferro, one of the most powerful figures in newspaper publishing, was stepping down from his position after two years on the job. Hours later, Fortune published a report detailing allegations of Ferro’s inappropriate sexual advances.

Ferro’s spokesman initially told The New York Times that the 51-year-old executive wanted to “go out on a win,” a reference to Tronc’s recent $500 million sale of the Los Angeles Times. The deeply reported story by Fortune’s Kristen Bellstrom and Beth Kowitt ensured that his legacy will also include allegations of sexual misconduct. Their story contains on-the-record descriptions from two women about Ferro’s unwanted advances, as well as details about questionable behavior in front of his employees. His surprise retirement comes after Fortune reached out to Ferro last week about the details in their story, which he declined to address directly.

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Fortune’s story included a comment from Ferro’s spokesman, who asserted that there had never been a claim filed against him nor a settlement made on his behalf, and added, “Mr. Ferro has retired back to private life after leading a financial turnaround of Tronc as the non-executive chairman. There will, therefore, be no other comment.”

While Tronc’s bottom line improved under Ferro’s leadership, his tenure was marked by upheaval and layoffs at the company’s newspapers, including a bruising year of management turnover, a unionization battle, and—ultimately—a sale at the LA Times. The Chicago Tribune went through a round of layoffs just last week. Ferro talked a big game about global expansion, but he never developed a coherent strategy for the company that controls iconic newspapers including the Tribune, The Baltimore Sun, and the New York Daily News.

Justin Dearborn, Tronc’s chief executive, will replace Ferro as chairman, but Ferro will remain the company’s largest shareholder and will continue to be paid $5 million per year through 2020 as a consultant. The shake-up comes two months after LA Times publisher Ross Levinsohn was accused of repeated sexual harassment. After an investigation, Levinsohn was cleared of wrongdoing and moved to a new role at Tronc.

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Longtime Chicago media-watcher Robert Feder, a frequent Ferro critic, pulled no punches in his analysis of the executive’s departure. “For a man who had done so much to undermine two Chicago news organizations (including the elimination of more than 1,125 newspaper jobs companywide in the last two years),” Feder writes, “it seemed fitting that Ferro would be brought down by the power of journalism.”

Below, more on the fallout from Ferro’s retirement and Fortune’s reporting.

  • What’s next?: NeimanLab’s Ken Doctor considers future options for Tronc. After the sale of the LA Times closes, the company will be much diminished in scale. Might it merge with Gannett? Will Ferro take it private? Doctor explores those possibilities.
  • Journalists celebrate: CNN’s Brian Stelter writes that “Even before the Fortune story was published, some journalists at Tronc’s papers were saying good riddance to Ferro.” While the company’s shareholders may be happy with Ferro’s leadership, Stelter notes that his reign was marked by cutbacks and turmoil at the newspapers he ran.
  • Ferro’s controversial legacy: Splinter’s David Uberti has a critical view of Ferro’s time at the top, detailing his many questionable initiatives and calling him “a human spigot of poorly conceived ideas.
  • From the homefront: Always interesting to read the internal reporting on issues like this. The Chicago Tribune’s Robert Channick plays it straight, laying out the allegations against Ferro in detail.

 

Other notable stories

  • Following up on yesterday’s newsletter: The UK’s Channel 4 went undercover to film senior executives at Cambridge Analytica claiming they could entrap politicians using underhanded methods like bribes or Ukrainian sex workers.
  • The Washington Post’s Jason Rezaian writes about increasing press crackdowns by the Iranian regime. The government has long suppressed local media and made things difficult for foreign reporters in the country, but it is expanding its reach by “attempting to intimidate journalists living and working [in] a foreign country.”
  • As Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman visits the US, CJR’s Jon Allsop looks at the state of media coverage of Saudi Arabia. As the newly elevated leader consolidates his power, Allsop writes that “coverage of MBS’s reforms could be improved if foreign correspondents got out into the country and folded ordinary Saudi voices into their stories.”
  • Poynter ethics chair Indira Lakshmanan uses last week’s reports by Axios and The Daily Beast about a meeting between John Kelly and reporters to tackle the issue of off-the-record meetings. “Being told something that’s off-the-record puts [journalists] in a terrible bind. We can’t un-know something,” she writes. “What if we are told something that could be as big as Watergate? If we sit on such information, we’re derelict in our duty to inform.”
  • For CJR, Amanda Palleschi profiles New York magazine’s The Cut. “The Cut stands out in a crowded women’s media world in both editorial gravitas and reach,” she writes.
  • A week after criticizing reports that he was looking for new counsel, President Trump added a lawyer to his team. Joseph E. diGenova, who has appeared on television pushing outlandish theories about an FBI conspiracy against the president, will “serve as an outspoken player for the president as Mr. Trump has increased his attacks on the special counsel, Robert S. Mueller III,” write The New York Times’s Maggie Haberman and Michael S. Schmidt.

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Pete Vernon is a CJR staff writer. Follow him on Twitter @ByPeteVernon.