At Flagship Chicago Tribune, Dismay, Confusion Over Zell Edicts

One day after top Tribune Co. executives decreed that pages would be torn from its newspapers and journalists would be subject to some measure of their productivity, the newsroom of the flagship Chicago Tribune Friday buzzed with dismay and, most of all, confusion.

Supervisors and reporters who talked to E&P uniformly said the announcements Tribune Co. Chairman and CEO Sam Zell and COO Randy Michaels during a conference call with lenders had seemingly come out of nowhere.

“Prior to yesterday, I thought they were just showing up at a party and throwing a bomb to see what happens, which can be a legitimate management tool,” one said. “But they had some very specific things starting at the Orlando Sentinel this month and everywhere by September.”

One recurring theme in those E&P talked with was that the paper was being guided by “radio guys.” Michael and other top executives are former Clear Channel executives, and Zell owned a string of radio stations.

“Not to say that they are dummies, but this is a complex business and I don’t think they understand that,” one reporter said. “Look, I wouldn’t walk into Northwestern [Memorial Hospital] and tell the brain surgeon how to do his job.”

Zell and Michaels said page counts would be reduced across Tribune’s 10 dailies by 12.5%. And Michaels suggested that journalists’ productivity would be measured on some quantifiable scale.

He said, for instance, that the average Los Angeles Times journalist produces about 51 pages a year, while journalists at The Hartford (Conn.) Courant average 300 pages. The figures puzzled one supervisor, who said there had not been any explanation to managers before or after Thursday’s conference call about the measurements. “They took the number of pages and divided it by something, either all editorial employees, or just reporters, or something,” the supervisor said.

Editors have not been told how, or even, whether they will be measuring individual newsroom employees, the supervisor added.

Worried reporters have been asking about byline counts — which were collected several months ago by corporate managers — and other productivity measures, though that misses, this supervisor said, a bigger bombshell in the Michaels and Zell announcements.

“The lead is the pages,” the supervisor said. “They are going to take 500 pages out a week. That is gargantuan.” Like the productivity measure, managers have not been told how page reductions will be taken across the chain, the supervisor added.

But if productivity is on the minds of reporters, it’s because it clearly is the topic that angers them most.

“I think the thing that really hit, and I think frankly was a low blow, is that if you’ve got a problem with the productivity of individual reporters then you go to the managers and say, we think there’s a problem here and since you’re running this paper you should deal with this,” a reporter said.

“To say in a public way without consulting with the editors that they’ve got slackers here is …” the reporter added, before pausing and following with an obscenity.

Michaels’ comparison of the Chicago Tribune’s future reduced size with the page count of The Wall Street Journal also irked that reporter as well as another who also brought it up without being asked. Michaels said the Tribune typically runs 80 pages on a weekday, compared to what he said was the Journal’s average of about 48. (A spokesperson for the Journal said the paper actually publishes well more than 50 pages in a typical weekday. Friday’s edition in Chicago was exactly 50 pages.)

“They’re two completely different papers doing two completely different things,” the reporter said. “He says people won’t feel ripped off (by a Tribune with fewer pages). So I’m supposed to bet our reputation on that?”