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From AJR,   June/July 2006  issue

Give Me a Break   

Its hard to work up much sympathy for the Chandler family members who are roughing up Tribune Co. management.
Posted June 15, 2006


By Rem Rieder
Rem Rieder (rrieder@ajr.umd.edu) is AJR's editor and senior vice president.      

In the true spirit of the transparency that we all embrace, it's time for Neil Sedaka to issue a correction.

Turns out breaking up ISN'T that hard to do.

Take a look at Knight Ridder. Money guy Bruce S. Sherman isn't happy with the stock price, tells the company to put itself up for sale, rallies some of his peeps to his cause. Next thing you know, no more Knight Ridder. The nation's second-largest newspaper company: history.

Now it's the Tribune Co.'s turn in the hot seat.

Representatives of the Chandler family, which sold Times Mirror to Tribune in 2000, have launched a brutal assault on company management. Saying that Tribune's "strategic failure has had disastrous effects," the family directors demanded all sorts of changes, ranging from spinning off its TV holdings to you guessed it putting the company up for sale.

"It's the beginning of the end game," much-quoted media analyst Edward Atorino told the New York Times.

Well, there's no doubt Trib's performance has been disappointing. All those dreams of riches beyond belief stemming from its ballyhooed synergy strategy have failed to materialize. The idea of owning newspapers and TV stations in the same market turned out to be not so much the magic bullet (and the FCC has yet to jettison regulations barring most such arrangements).

But that being said, it's pretty tacky for these Chandlers to raise this kind of ruckus, and not just because it was their decision to cash out for $8 billion--$8 billion. (And they, after all, picked Tribune as the lucky winner).

First of all, Tribune is beset by the familiar litany of woes that dog all publicly held newspaper companies: declining circulation, the rise of the Internet, Wall Street mishegas and all the rest.

But more to the point, a lot of the company's big difficulties are due to Times Mirror, thank you very much.

There's that billion-dollar tax bill, a hangover from a Times Mirror dispute with the IRS. There's the big-time circulation scandal at Newsday, a former Times Mirror property. And the Los Angeles Times, while a wonderful paper in many respects, has not exactly been cash cow of the year.

There's also the fact that the only L.A. Chandler who contributed much to the cause of quality journalism, so far as I can tell, was the late, lamented surfer Otis. Before he took over, the L.A. Times was an abomination. (Raymond Chandler was an L.A. Chandler who contributed enormously to quality writing, but that's another story altogether.)

So it's pretty hard for me to work up much sympathy for these whining Chandlers, although I certainly will support them for a Pulitzer Prize for Gall.

The Tribune tribulations are a vivid reminder of the fundamental change sweeping across the media business. But it's important to remember that fundamental change doesn't always mean bad.

Take the Knight Ridder sale. While the thuggish tactics that brought it about are disgusting, the results are not necessarily so terrible. Knight Ridder, after all, was no longer the fondly remembered Knight Ridder of yore.

You could argue that the 20 papers that McClatchy is keeping have ended up in a better home. Papers like Duluth and Grand Forks seem a better fit in a small, private, family-owned company like Forum Communications than in a national powerhouse. And the two Philly papers and Akron have reverted to private ownership as well.

The reactions of journalists at the Philadelphia Inquirer and Daily News is instructive. While the papers will be owned by an amalgam of players whom they cover, with all the potential conflicts that poses, staffers seem generally relieved that the Knight Ridder agony is over and a new, perhaps more optimistic era, is beginning.

At any rate, bracing for change seems the right approach in the media world.

Not long ago, about 70 veteran Washington Post staffers accepted buyouts. It was the Post's second round of buyouts in three years. Even though the paper's stock structure insulates it to some extent from the vicissitudes of Wall Street that proved fatal for Knight Ridder, it's hardly immune to the powerful forces rattling the media world. Many staffers who are staying found the staff reduction and the departure of so many valued colleagues unsettling. Even Executive Editor Len Downie spoke of the wild ride ahead.

As the late Karen Carpenter put it, we've only just begun.