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From AJR,   June/July 2007

No Joy in Zellville   

Counting column inches as a career move

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

It's a big win for the Column Inch Count Man.

Gerould Kern, the newly minted editor of the Chicago Tribune, is the executive behind the infamous "productivity" assessment that Sam Zell has been wielding wildly as he eviscerates his newspapers.

Kern got the nod after Ann Marie Lipinski, the paper's respected editor, said no más. She couldn't dismantle the newsroom she had helped build any further.

Tribune Co. Chief Operating Officer Randy Michaels cited the Column Inch Count when he announced that yet more cutbacks were coming to the company's already reeling newsrooms. He said the average Los Angeles Times reporter turned out about 51 pages a year, while at Tribune's Hartford Courant, the output was six times higher. It's time, Michaels said, to "right-size" the newspaper staffs. Sure enough, jobs are vanishing with frightening speed throughout the Zell Empire.

Evaluating the productivity of reporters this way is astonishingly dumb, right up there with the ridiculous Byline Count. It assumes that newspapers are like factories in which everyone is doing the same thing. It ignores the fact that important journalism – investigative reporting, enterprise pieces, projects, in-depth profiles – takes time. A lot more time than quick-hit stories from press conferences and press releases.

There's nothing wrong with quick-hit pieces. But failing to distinguish between them and more time-consuming, yet essential, reporting is silly.

I doubt if the Washington Post's Anne Hull and Dana Priest did very well on the Column Inch Count or the Byline Count while they were working on the terrific pieces about awful conditions at Walter Reed Medical Center . Seymour Hersh probably didn't fare too well while he was unearthing the My Lai story. Woodward and Bernstein no doubt had some lean weeks when they were knocking on doors in the Watergate era.

And so Kern, Tribune Publishing's vice president of editorial since 2003, who was recently placed in charge of news and features for Tribune Media Services, is rewarded for his meticulous measuring with the editorship of a major American newspaper. Beautiful.

Elsewhere in Zellville, another publisher is out at the Los Angeles Times. They definitely need revolving doors in the executive suites there.

No one disputes the fact that the astonishingly rapid transformation of the media business means changes are inevitable, even desirable. But the steady decimation at Tribune is a result not only of the industry's structural shift, but also of Zell's huge debt from taking over the company and his lack of understanding of how the business works. That's what makes it so tragic.

Whoever thought that the old synergy-besotted Tribune management and public ownership would be missed?