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Why Jim O’Shea’s book isn’t on my summer reading list

I’ve been scanning many of the reviews and other jaw-boning about former Tribune colleague Jim O’Shea’s new book, The Deal From Hell, keyed to the 2000 Tribune Co. takeover of Times Mirror. But I probably am not going to read the book itself.

Based on what I’ve been seeing, Jim and I diverge on more than a few key points. That’s not surprising.  As someone who gladly worked for and with “Count” Gerry Kern, one of Jim’s villains (who gets his very own chapter); has been on the interactive side of newsrooms and the business since 1995; and led Tribune content-sharing initiatives online and in print, I’m pretty sure I’ve already got three big ticket items in the shopping cart at LikelyDisagreeWithJim.com. And reading his book isn’t going to change that.

But that’s not why I’m leaning against spending $15.94 on Kindle.

Three years gone from the company that nurtured, raised and developed me for nearly 30 years, the large scab from the departure wound is still not fully healed, and ripping the bandage off by reading Jim’s book and getting agita over his view of history — and of the unvarnished history itself — probably would set back the healing.

Along with far too many others, I was collateral damage from Sam Zell’s complex and risky 2007-2008 going-private takeover of Tribune. Early on, he chose Randy Michaels to run the place, which he did, with the grace, class and style of the Delta Tau Chi house. Thankfully, I didn’t survive the double-secret probation.

Last fall, Michaels and his collection of carnie workers were finally chased from Tribune Tower with pitchforks and the de-lousing began. When that finally happened, I made a conscious decision to try to put Tribune in the past and not pay as much attention to its many seemingly never-ending woes.

Jim’s book — and the chatter about it — is making that very difficult.

But despite my vows, I need to make a couple of points because I, like Jim, had a seat in the theater as the show unfolded over the decades.

Merger is really spelled ‘t-a-k-e-o-v-e-r’

 If the Tribune-Times Mirror deal that opened the millennium was a “merger,” as it is typically described, then it is clear that one of the very few successful parts of it was this: the “merger” of billions of dollars snugly into the already very fat wallets of a small group of Chandler heirs who inherited the Times Mirror empire.

 This happened not once, but twice! – in 2000, when the first record deal was done, and in the 2007-2008 “going-private” transaction that the Chandlers forced, which led to Zell. The Chandlers got rich(er), twice. The employees got not richer. And eventually fired.

 But the Tribune-Times Mirror deal wasn’t a merger — it was a takeover that was spun as a merger to make, I guess, the journalists and others at the local business units (and some Wall Street skeptics?) feel better.

 My memory may be dim 11 years later, but I recall the senior Tribune executive who called me at 4 a.m. the night the deal was done said “Scott, we just bought Times Mirror,” not “Scott, we just merged with Times Mirror.”

 But it wasn’t treated that way internally, beyond the corporate staff at Times Mirror Square being rapidly dispatched from its superb offices (I never had a shower in one of my offices – or a fountain babbling out in the lobby. TMC brass did, along with an enormous doughnut-shaped blonde conference table befitting the UN, the carpet in the middle of which was always meticulously vacuumed. It was next to the LA Times publisher’s private dining suite).

 Management at the business units, where the real power at Times Mirror (and most companies) resided, was largely left untouched, if memory serves.

 One wonders how different the outcome might have been if Tribune 1.0 management did what most businesses do when they (over)spend billions for a company. Isn’t it fairly common practice to send packing boxes and parting gifts to most of the absorbed company’s leadership and management,  not just at the highest of levels, but at the operating units as well?

The TRB-TMC integration sucked an indescribable amount of energy and focus out of the company for years at a time of great change in the business. That energy could have been much better spent positioning the company for the REAL future instead of sticking fingers in the dikes that held in the past.

Just one small example: A former Times Mirror business unit refused to let someone from our finance department in the offices when she flew in to talk about the budget. Can you imagine?

Not to mention the years we spent fighting over online publishing platforms, features and functionality. Had that energy been spent actually collectively developing products that could break out and compete, we might have had more success instead of a tepid float in mediocrity and local market share in most cases well below the national players.

When I left eight years after the deal was done, we were still mired on a daily basis with the festering cultural and operational issues from the deal. It was a yoke we all wore.

I need to make it clear that that I’m not slamming the many incredible and talented new colleagues I gained at Times Mirror. Many of them became friends. Those relationships are and always will be among the few bright spots of a deal that in many ways destroyed my beloved Mama Tribune. 

 Nor am I out to bash Jim, an Old School journalist for whom I have respect. Rather, we disagree on some things based on the view from the places in which we sat in the theater. He is entitled to his perspective and his opinions. As I, mine.

Giving Charlie his due

Putting aside the deal for a moment, if Matt Welch is quoting him accurately in his review of Jim’s book, O’Shea criticizes former Tribune CEO and Chairman Charlie Brumback as a “moral monster” because he pushed technology, made money and fought unions.

Journalists are great at seeing bogey-men and monsters under the bed. Charlie Brumback did not seem to be one of them, moral or otherwise. 

Anecdotes abound about Charlie’s thirst and drive for technology, including one in which he and a manager were reviewing early online sites on his computer and his screen froze. Charlie crawled under the desk and futzed around with wires, trying to get the computer working again. This was in the early ‘90s, folks. Most PCs didn’t even have a hard drive yet. Here was a chairman of a Fortune 500 company, doing his own tech support.

Charlie, by brute force, brought us corporate e-mail, long before it was on the radar screen of most other companies (to the chagrin of some journalists, who ultimately would find they couldn’t hide behind editorial assistants and voice mail anymore when the commoners wanted to get in touch).

And Charlie did something that many executives didn’t do for years and some still don’t, for heaven’s sake — read his own email, instead of having a secretary screen it and print it out.

That was powerful symbolism for those of us who would work online in the very earliest days.

The culture from Charlie’s late-life exuberant embrace of technology brought us a modest investment in a small Virginia company named Quantum Computer. You might better recognize its next name: America Online.

At one point, Tribune’s early investment translated into a 10% ownership of AOL when it was at the top of its game and publicly traded (we’d ultimately reap north of $1 billion from the investment thanks to a complex bond deal).

It was money from AOL side deals that funded our early interactive ventures, including my first fulltime online job in 1995, and my publisher in South Florida, Scott Smith, sat on AOL’s board. A key player in the original AOL investment was Michael Silver, a trusted friend and mentor to whom I reported a couple of times. Mike brought me to Chicago as editor of the central online content group.

Scott Smith was not a big believer that news itself would be much of a business online. (Turns out, he was right). But in 1995 he still let us newsies get into that game, as long as we focused foremost on building classified advertising products, which we did, launching Home Spot, believed to be the very first real estate site by a newspaper company, followed career and automotive sites. We also focused on the AOL platform, tied to our joint venture with AOL for Digital Cities; we owned the local franchise in the four Tribune 1.0 markets.

It was all about classifieds

Tribune knew even back in the era when Netscape was just being invented downstate in Champaign-Urbana that the real looming threat was to its dizzyingly profitable print classified business. And it was those classified margins that really paid for the journalism — not subscription fees. (Sorry, revisionists who argue for pay walls today and cite circulation revenue from the past).

Classified Ventures (cars.com, apartments.com) and CareerBuilder.com were born of the technological courage and vision of Charlie’s era. Absent Tribune’s leadership among its peers — and it was enormous —neither would probably exist today as a few of the rare examples of where newspaper companies DID succeed online.

Quick, name a newspaper-hatched interactive company that is so big it advertises on the Super Bowl? It isn’t NYTimes.com; it’s cars.com (run for 15 years by Mitch Golub, a former boss from South Florida – one of the best in the business).

One of the people most responsible for those new interactive classified companies existing and flourishing was longtime Tribune colleague Tim Landon, who was all-to-quickly booted from the frat house after Michaels and his cronies arrived in early 2008. Tim was on the senior management team of the company and the head of my division, Tribune Interactive, and remains someone I very much admire.

It didn’t take me long to figure we were heading for a drain swirl if Michaels didn’t see value in Tim staying with the company. That’s one thing I think the Michael’s gang had in common with many in the newsrooms – they really didn’t give a rat’s ass about online. For Michaels et al, it was just a division to featherbed with scores of good ol’ Clear Channel boys and their friends and families.

Particularly heartbreaking was what turned out to be Tim’s final staff meeting, at which he was clearly distraught and exhausted and wasn’t able to say what was going to happen to him, or to us. Within a week, he was gone, without being given a chance to even say good-bye.

So, I knew pretty early on it was time for me to go and that things were going to get very ugly at Tribune Interactive, if not all of Tribune. And they would be, based on the disturbingly crude, vile, sexist “joke” I was told that Landon’s replacement had made when meeting a couple of employees. And that was his first morning on the job.

O’Shea, bless him, does officially share some of the vulgar tales of the Michaels era – tales that I heard second- and third-hand regularly over the months after I left Tribune, but tales that went unreported by Chicago media, save for media blogger Bob Feder.

If any other CEO in Chicago was pulling the shenanigans that Michaels et al were rumored to be pulling, including allegedly receiving oral sex from an employee on a balcony at corporate HQ, or having the smoke detectors in an historic high-rise covered with plastic so as to not disturb a cigar, booze ‘n poker party for the senior team, you’d think it would have been Page One news somewhere. (The building manager posted the party pictures and details on Facebook; it wasn’t like evidence was hard to find).

But it wasn’t until a Chicago outsider — David Carr of the New York Times — exposed the debauchery of Michaels and his disciples last Fall that change was put into motion.

Back to Charlie… As O’Shea notes in his book, Brumback also was a force in trying to coalesce the industry around New Century Network in the ‘90s, to share a common interactive publishing platform and drive a business model – including paid content — through cooperation. An impossible task, given the industry and its egos. It failed. (OK, I admit I had to read the handful of pages available in the free Kindle sample or I wouldn’t have felt right writing this post).

And it was Charlie who had the balls to stand up during a kickoff meeting at Tribune Tower circa 1995 at which the company’s business units were plotting what to do now that we had our first-ever major funding for online development, and barked “if this is all going to be based in Chicago, it’s going to fail.” He was right.

My, that’s one fat paper you’ve got there

What I recall of Charlie’s predecessor as chairman, Stanton Cook, was a visit he paid to us in Fort Lauderdale in the ’80s, around the time the company had gone public. The assembled worker bees stood outside the loading dock off the old Las Olas Boulevard pressroom as Cook cooed about how delightful it was that we produced such fat papers. And they were fat indeed. The Saturday new homes section alone could approach 200 pages of very high-margin display ads.

I wasn’t present at Cook’s speech (busy out doing reporting, thanks) but we newsies bitched for years how it was the weight — not the journalistic gravitas — of our papers on which he chose to focus.

But we didn’t complain about what those fat papers brought us, including explosive newsroom headcount growth in one of the most competitive markets in the country. I was hired in 1981 because of expansion in Palm Beach County. And just a few years later, our northern outpost added two dozen (!) journalists and support staff — in one year alone — for product expansion.

Tribune’s investment in its Florida papers, a longtime colleague reminded me the other day, is an example of how the company worked to improve (not kill) journalism. Not to keep sounding like a Tribune PR guy, but the company could easily have made steady barrels of money by leaving the Orlando Sentinel, Sun-Sentinel and Fort Lauderdale News alone in their under-achieving ‘70s-era mediocrity. But it invested heavily in the ‘80s and ‘90s, significantly grew the staffs, infused really smart people from the home office and within the industry, and dramatically raised the quality, and impact, of the journalism.

Those fat papers that Stan so loved are what got many, many of us into the business, and kept us there for many years. 

We don’t mind the bean counters running the joint when we get things from them; only when they start taking things away.

The original Tribune IPO fattened our retirement accounts (Jim’s included, I presume). Some years, under the original two Employee Stock Ownership Plans that came after the company went public, we received as much as 20% of our salaries in contributions to our ESOP accounts, which also had minimum guarantees for annual investment returns. (And those of us who had been around a long time also were part of the traditional pension plan that was sunset with the ESOP plan, but we got to double-dip for a bit).

I think it was the success of those earlier ESOP plans that gave us at least some hope for the controversial tax-advantaged ESOP that was structured by Zell to take the company private. We were suckers.

Aside from a lush ESOP in the glory years, there were various other incentive plans that trickled down below senior management to regular employees – including those in some newsrooms. While some of the spoils spoiled as Wall Street abandoned us (stock options wound up under water and ESOP accounts headed south), the perks were pretty good from a company that we are now led to believe was doing its best to destroy journalism.

Ultimately, I spent most of my last 15 years at Tribune dealing with cancerous lip service and oppressive passive aggression over the Internet in newsrooms coast-to-coast.

Maybe if more journalists had spent time embracing, understanding and learning to leverage the Internet instead of fighting it, dismissing it, mocking it and convincing themselves it would go away – and, eventually, blaming it for all of their ills – the end of the story being writ still today would be different.

I know that I was able to change a few minds over the years, but I will always consider myself a failure in some way because I wasn’t able to change enough minds soon enough, or at all.

As popular author Michael Connelly, a longtime friend, recently put it: “Google doesn’t kill newspapers. People kill newspapers.” (Mike also benefited from Stan’s fat newspapers; he was hired two weeks after I was and was assigned with me in the Palm Beach hinterlands).

Not that many years ago, a top editor at one of our newspapers is said to have declared to the person running the online content team, “You will not promote YOUR website in MY newspaper.” Pretty audacious, even for its time.

It wasn’t as if journalists were left out of the birth and growth of the online business within Tribune. The interactive leadership team was founded and long filled with those who came from the newsroom.  At one point, every general manager of interactive operations in the four original Tribune newspaper markets had a newsroom pedigree (Owen Youngman in Chicago, Mitch Golub in Fort Lauderdale, Mike Bales in Orlando and Digby Solomon in Newport News, Va.). And the top interactive leader in corporate was Mike Silver, another longtime journalist (recently hired as a colleague at Northwestern).

Times Mirror Interactive also had a top-heavy layer of journalists running many of its online business, and that continued under Tribune.

Heirs of Col. McCormick, meet the heirs of Marshall Field

The story of Marshall Field’s department stores in Chicago has long struck me as an allegory for the sepia-tinged newsroom view of the world. Newsrooms go ballistic whenever a cherished longtime local brand or institution is threatened. Marshall Field’s was textbook.

Countless stories have been written about how such a treasured brand and part of our Midwest heritage and community disappeared after Macy’s bought the company – and had the nerve(!) to run it the way it saw fit, including abolishing the Marshall Field’s brand.  You can still read these stories every Christmas, when the annual woe-is-us bubbles up over the Christmas traditions at the flagship Marshall Field’s store in the Loop — even though Macy’s went out of its way to preserve almost all of the sacred traditions.

And you’d think Field’s freakin’ Frango Mints were part of the cure for world hunger, the way the Chicago media carried on when corporate heathens closed down local production.

What tended to often get very fuzzy behind the gauze the media put over the emotional lens focused on the wistful past was that Marshall Field’s was a failing business with a failing model. The world had changed (it always does) and the way customers bought things had changed (it always will). But the department store business hadn’t changed.

Sounds familiar, eh?

I do have to call bullshit on one particular point from Jim’s book: “For their part, the journalists turned a blind eye to the problems in their own industry, thanks at least in part to the time-honored wall erected between newsrooms and the business side of the newspapers to maintain the integrity of the news.” (Emphasis added).

I’m sorry; it may have been a time-honored wall, but it was also a cop-out and a lazy excuse for the status quo (doing stories journalists thought were important vs. even trying half-heartedly to put out a newspaper that readers wanted).

Journalists chose not to care about the business side because they’d been brainwashed to think the purity of what they were doing – their higher calling – was all that it was about. The readers are sheep; they must be led by our genius! Well, guess what. The sheep got tired of being led and went to find other more interesting places to graze. (And no, the Internet wasn’t a bad-ass rustler who plotted to steal the sheep. They found their new pastures on their own; the pastures just happened to have Wi-Fi access.)

Newspaper readership had been on a slow and steady decline since after World War II. It wasn’t like the Internet infected the masses with a virus that forced them to call the Circulation department and cancel. They were already doing that.

One respected veteran industry observer sees it this way: “There is very little evidence that a higher standard of journalism would have stemmed this decline—in fact, some folks think the drive toward quality journalism during the 1970s and 1980s was a short-term strategy that worked to boost revenues and profits at the time, but actually accelerated the decline of newspapers as a business by failing to make them more appealing to mass audiences.”

Many on the business side were petrified for years because of the weight that editors threw around within the company, what with their Superman unitards and capes with a big J on them.

But as business started eroding, those who had been in awe of the Big J-s slowly started becoming more and more skeptical. There was no opposite and equal reaction in the newsrooms; heads remained in the sand and under the shadow of the sacred “wall” of righteousness.

Many journalists got more and more defensive and paid little more than lip service to change (e.g., participating thinly in online or rolling their eyes at reader initiatives).

Eventually, once business turned bad enough, the business side devolved into revenge. As you know, revenge is a dish best served cold, and the budget-slashing bean counters put on quite a spread on behalf of the newsrooms.

I broached that beloved wall and, guess what, didn’t turn to ash and wasn’t forced to get 666 tattooed beneath my long-since-receded hairline.

I am and will continue to be a journalist, as ethical and driven and qualified as any journalist who hasn’t embraced – or at least chosen to pay attention to – the business we are in.

I have long been positioned to more effectively fight for what journalism stands for because I had the respect of the business side and could work with it to get things done and assure as much as possible the purity of the journalism.

Certain quarters of the newsroom in South Florida didn’t think much of those of us who chose to get active on company project teams and start learning the business in the early ‘90s. Church-state wall, and all. But we knew what we were doing was right, and it led us in new and rewarding directions. And we became better, more well-rounded journalists and business stakeholders.

I now teach interactive publishing to graduate journalism students and a key part of our focus is product development and a holistic approach to journalism. You can’t be a successful journalist today if you don’t understand the business or know – and at least respect – your audience. The students seem to embrace that, so I am encouraged that the next generation won’t repeat the passive and active aggressive sins of the past.

This is, I tell my students, one of the most exciting and empowering times in history to be a journalist.

Well, in the time I’ve spent thinking about and writing this post, I could have read a big chunk of Jim’s book.

But the Band-Aid, stained and faded and curled a bit around the edges — and smelling a little funky after all these years — is still safely in place. One day, I’ll wake up, and it will be gone. I hope.

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