News next: a journalism teacher's diary

October 19, 2010

Sex in the Tribune Tower

Under new management, the Tribune executive suite had an Animal House atmosphere, according to The New York Times

The headline got your attention, didn’t it? Sex sells, and that’s undoubtedly why a front page article in The New York Times of Oct. 6 begins with a dirty story.

To set up his tale of how the Tribune Company, proud publisher of the Chicago Tribune, the Los Angeles Times, Newsday, The Baltimore Sun, The Hartford Courant and The Orlando Sentinel, destroyed some of the finest newsrooms in the country and collapsed into bankruptcy, David Carr describes an after-hours gathering of the company’s new chief executive Randy Michaels and some colleagues in a hotel bar.

After Mr. Michaels arrived, according to two people at the bar that night, he sat down and said, “watch this,” and offered the waitress $100 to show him her breasts. The group sat dumbfounded.

“Here was this guy, who was responsible for all these people, getting drunk in front of senior people and saying this to a waitress who many of us knew,” said one of the Tribune executives present, who declined to be identified because he had left the company and did not want to be quoted criticizing a former employer. “I have never seen anything like it.”

Mr. Michaels, who otherwise declined to be interviewed, said through a spokesman, “I never made the comment allegedly attributed to me in January 2008 to a waitress at the InterContinental Hotel, and anyone who said I did so is either lying or mistaken.”

Does anyone else feel queasy about this anecdote? The reporter bases it on two anonymous sources; Michaels says it never happened. How does Carr, who wasn’t there, know the story is true? How do we?

And to what purpose is this shameful episode recounted? If depicts Michaels as a sleaze, and perhaps he is, but does that make him unusual in the executive suites of America? What does his obnoxious sexism have to do with the collapse of one of the nation’s largest and most prestigious media companies?

Here’s how The Times explained the connection in the lead-in to the web version:

Under Sam Zell, the Tribune Company was bankrupted by debt, and employees describe a profane and alienating workplace.

Here’s the longer, somewhat more nuanced version from the story itself.

The new management did transform the work culture, however. Based on interviews with more than 20 employees and former employees of Tribune, Mr. Michaels’s and his executives’ use of sexual innuendo, poisonous workplace banter and profane invective shocked and offended people throughout the company. Tribune Tower, the architectural symbol of the staid company, came to resemble a frat house, complete with poker parties, juke boxes and pervasive sex talk.

The question, though, is this: What is the relationship between the decline in advertising revenue at Tribune’s newspapers, radio and television stations and the Animal House culture of the new executive team? The article strains for an answer, but never delivers one.

Instead Carr’s investigation falls into two pieces. There’s the eye-catching story of sex and shenanigans. And there’s the business story of how Zell bought the Tribune Corp. without risking his own capital by piling up massive debt, unloaded the debt on his employees by creating an employee stock ownership plan, imposed brutal cuts on the news staff and found circulation and advertising revenues plummeting nonetheless.

It is a story that has been told before, about the Tribune and about other chains, from Hearst to the Journal News to the New York Times Corp., which this week reported continued losses in circulation and advertising revenue.

Carr does show how dumb decisions made by the new executives contributed to the decline. Long-time editor Ann Marie Lipinksi quit over Zell’s meddling in the newsroom. An idiot who served as “innovations officer” said he was surprised “that The Los Angeles Times reporters covering the war in Iraq were actually there.” (Update, he was misunderstood, he says after being fired.) But sobersided publishers have made poor decisions and have breached the wall that separates the news and business sides, too.

For instance, Carr notes that “Advertising has been inserted into The Los Angeles Times in new and unsettling ways,” citing advertisements that look like the front page wrapped around the real front page. The device is deplorable, but it’s not new. The Daily News has done it, and the LA Times did it in the late 1990s under its previous owners, who appointed a cereal company executive to run the paper, leading to an outcry over advertiser-friendly stories and news decisions based on focus groups.

In short, in an era when technology has thrown the collection and distribution of news into turmoil, the Tribune Corp., like so many other media companies, has been blown over by the winds of change. Wrapping a racy story of profane memos, public sex and office poker parties around the too-familiar story of newspapers in decline is not much different from wrapping a fake front page around the first section of the LA Times.

Update

After Abrams and Michaels resigned, on Oct. 25 the Chicago Tribune ran an editorial commenting on their stewardship and on The Times story. Of the executives it said:

Their conduct has embarrassed us in front of our readers, our advertisers, our business partners and our families. It has left us answering questions about whether reports of their actions reflect the environment in which we work. We want to tell you that Chicago Tribune employees, including those who work in our newsroom, don’t conduct themselves in the manner attributed to some Tribune Co. executives.

But the focus of the editorial was not on the frat boys but on Zell and whether or not he had compromised the paper’s editorial integrity. The editorial board categorically denied that Zell had had any impact on he way it treated Gov. Rod Balgojevich.

It concluded:

Last year and this year have, by many measures, been highly successful for the Chicago Tribune. Our financial performance has improved — a point the New York Times article regrettably misconstrued. Since May of 2009, we have added more than 50 journalists to our staff. We are increasing our total audience in print and online.

We’re going to put this miserable episode in the past. We’re intent on driving positive change in this community, this state and beyond. That’s our mission.

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