Sunday, December 07, 2008

Chicago Tribune In Trouble

The Chicago Tribune is facing a possible bunkruptcy.


Chicago Tribune parent Tribune Co. is working with bankruptcy advisers at investment bank Lazard and law firm Sidley Austin to weigh its financial options, sources said Sunday.

"It's an uncertain and difficult environment," Tribune Co. spokesman Gary Weitman said Sunday night. "We haven't made any decision. We're looking at all of our options."



The Tribune was dealing will investor pressure in 2007. The company sold shares to local billionaire Sam Zell to restore public confidence. The deal gave Zell ownership of the Chicago Cubs. The results were disastrous. Los Angeles Times columnist Harold Meyerson accused Zell of destroying The Times.


During his first year in journalism, Zell has visited the city rooms and Washington bureaus of a number of Trib publications to deliver obscenity-laced warnings and threats to employees that whatever it was they were doing, it wasn't working. There was too much coverage of world and national affairs, he told Times writers and editors; readers don't want that stuff. Last week, the company decreed that its 12 papers would have to cut by 500 the number of pages they devoted every week to news, features and editorials, until the ratio of pages devoted to copy and pages devoted to advertising was a nice, even 1 to 1. At the Times, that would mean eliminating 82 pages a week.

As the company prepares to shed more reporters, it has measured writers' performances by the number of column inches of stories they ground out. It found, said one Zell executive, that the level of pages per reporter at one of Zell's smaller papers, the Hartford Courant (about 300), greatly exceeded that at the Times (about 50). As one of the handful of major national papers, however, the Times employs the kind of investigative and expert beat reporters not found at most smaller papers. I could name a number of Times writers who labored for months on stories that went on to win Pulitzers and other prizes, and whose column-inch production, accordingly, was relatively light. Doing so, I fear, would only put their necks on Zell's chopping block. So let me instead note that if The Post's Dana Priest and Anne Hull, who spent months uncovering the scandalous conditions at Walter Reed Army Medical Center, and whose reporting not only won a Pulitzer but caused a shake-up in the Army's treatment of wounded veterans, had been subjected to the Zellometer productivity index, they'd be prime candidates for termination.

Which is precisely, unfortunately, what's been happening at the Times. Voluntarily or not, large numbers of highly talented editors and reporters have left. The editorial staff is about two-thirds its size in the late 1990s, with further deep cuts in the offing. A paper that is both an axiom and an ornament of Los Angeles life, that helps set the political, business and artistic agenda for one of America's two great world metropolises, is being shrunk and, if Zell continues to get his way, dumbed down.


Cartoonist Rob Tornoe summed up Zell's leadership of the LAT.

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