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Billionaires, Buyouts, and a Newspaper Empire in the Balance: The Continuing Saga of Tronc

The media conglomerate formerly known as Tribune Publishing might yet find a savior (or several). But Tronc’s ongoing troubles paint a larger picture of the challenges facing the industry—and the uncertain future of the journalism it produces.

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The yellow neo-Gothic skyscraper standing on a corner of downtown Chicago’s Michigan Avenue has a name on its side: Chicago Tribune. The Tribune Tower housed the Tribune and its parent company for more than 90 years, serving as an imposing hub for the city’s media. Below its buttresses, and above the collection of historic rock fragments from the Taj Mahal, the Hagia Sophia, and the Alamo decorating the building’s lower levels, there is a Flannery O’Connor quote inscribed on one of the tower’s inner walls. “The truth does not change according to our ability to stomach it,” it reads.

The truth doesn’t change, but nearly everything else inside the building has. Journalists no longer shuffle past those words. The building “is sort of a living metaphor,” Chicago Tribune editor Charlie Johnson told The Ringer. “They’re even keeping the name itself plastered on the side of it, but not the people who actually make the paper.” The Tribune Tower is being renovated into condos; Chicago Tribune reporters and editors operate from a different building. They also operate under a different name, and, along with their brethren in other newsrooms owned by the former Tribune Publishing, in an increasingly diminished capacity amid belt-tightening measures for reporting projects and massive payouts for fleeing executives. In 2016, Tribune Publishing rechristened itself as “Tronc,” capping off an era of failures, including a bankruptcy and waves of layoffs across its newsrooms, with a strange rebrand and some more layoffs and failures.

Tronc stands for “Tribune Online Content.” In its own materials, the company presents its name in lowercase, a practice for which there is no satisfying explanation. “No one likes the name. No one likes the name. No one liked the name. No one likes the name,” Johnson told me when I brought it up. Soon after the rebrand, then-chairman Michael Ferro was mocked for his predilection for buzzwords and his dream of turning the newsgathering company into a virtual farm for robot-generated viral videos. “Right now, we’re doing a couple hundred videos a day; we think we should be doing 2,000 videos a day,” he told CNBC. The country’s largest newspaper chain, Gannett, attempted a buyout, and when Ferro didn’t take it, angry shareholders sued the company. CNBC’s Mad Money anchor Jim Cramer declared that Ferro’s Tronc was a “crazy town.”

Even considering the high bar set by years of upheaval, 2018 has been especially helter-skelter. This summer, the company sold its largest paper, the Los Angeles Times, to local billionaire Patrick Soon-Shiong, following a spirited newsroom rebellion that had culminated in unionization. This month, the company’s newest acquired paper announced plans to unionize, and the Chicago Tribune itself also unionized and was voluntarily recognized by Tronc. But even as its discontented journalists band together, the company looks like it is on the verge of splitting apart. In August, Tronc’s stock skyrocketed amid reports that the company might sell. (Appropriately, the Chicago Tribune broke the story.) A new private equity firm called the Donerail Group, formed by Will Wyatt, is interested in buying Tronc, according to Nieman Lab’s Ken Doctor, who says it will likely be sold for parts if Donerail does purchase. But Donerail already appears to face competition. Chicago Tribune business reporter Robert Channick reported this month that the company is also in early talks with McClatchy, a California-based newspaper chain that already owns 29 daily newspapers, including The Miami Herald; Business Insider reported that Soon-Shiong is involved with the potential deal. “We do not comment on any speculation in the marketplace,” a Tronc spokesperson said when asked about the reports of an impending sale.

“The whole company is up for grabs,” Chicago-based media critic and former Chicago Sun-Times columnist Robert Feder told The Ringer. “The question is, are they gonna sell it all to one buyer? And then what is the next step after that?” A sale could end up benefiting or even fully saving some of the papers if they find themselves in the current best-case scenario for almost any media entity: being purchased by a civic-minded billionaire. “If they come in and sell off the papers one by one to civic buyers who want to invest in those individual papers for their community, that would be fantastic,” Tronc designer Alicia Ramirez said. “At the end of the day, we just want owners who will care and invest in our mission, which is to cover the cities that we live in.”

However, a sale could end up as another sad example of good papers getting plundered by hedge funds with no interest in journalism, which is what is happening at The Denver Post under Alden Global Capital. Some journalists working for Tronc fear the latter. “It’s one thing to buy an auto parts factory and then sell off the machinery and fire the staff. You lose an auto parts factory,” a current Tribune employee told The Ringer. “But if you lose a newspaper, the functioning of the city’s democracy fundamentally changes.” Adds Feder: “I don’t think Tronc as a company, as a current entity, has any interest in newspapers or journalism whatsoever. They have shown no interest in investing in their products or improving journalism, or hiring new reporters, or improving the experience of their readers and subscribers. They exist solely for the enrichment of their top executives and their shareholders. That’s it.”

The company’s current approach to its media properties has been a medley of haphazard acquisitions and sell-offs, and even more poorly conceived budget cuts. “All signs indicate that the current management structure and ownership structure [at Tronc] haven’t been great for journalism. It’s not clear it’s been very good for business, either,” said former Chicago Tribune editor-in-chief Ann Marie Lipinski. “It’s a continuation of what has been a long, chaotic period for a really good newsroom.” But what’s bad for the newsroom and the newspaper itself has nevertheless enriched a handful of executives, and placed Tronc in position to sell. That could mean misery for its journalists, who may find themselves even more poorly stewarded by an unknown quantity. Many of the current Tronc employees who spoke with The Ringer shared hopes that the company could be reformed from within, without subjecting newsrooms to yet another change of hands. The incompetent devil they know is marginally more appealing than the one they don’t. Whether or not these papers find themselves controlled by Tronc, Donerail, Gannett, McClatchy, or an eccentric local billionaire, they will still have to survive a harsh market for legacy print publications, one without a clear path to financial success. It’s a dark time to be in the media business, even for companies without ridiculous names. This fall has served as yet another reminder of the precariousness that now defines the industry. After a summer in which Tronc decimated the New York Daily News’ staff and sold the Los Angeles Times, other outlets took similarly grim lumps. The Village Voice, for so long an essential New York read, shut down at the end of August. Just a few days later, new media company The Outline, which had positioned itself as a new voice in alternative media, laid off all of its staff writers. The old ways weren’t working, but a new path to profitability has failed to emerge. The challenges Tronc faces are not unique to the company, and will remain no matter who grabs the reins. And while the choices made by its leaders can appear uniquely farcical from one angle, Tronc’s story touches on industry trends that have affected nearly everyone who has ever stepped foot in a newsroom.

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In an earlier age, the company that would someday be known as Tronc flourished in times of controversy. Before Tronc, there was the Tribune Company, which was founded in 1847, when the Chicago Tribune — originally known as the Chicago Daily Tribune started its presses. The paper enjoyed a long stretch of prosperity and growth, rising to prominence under editor Joseph Medill, who used its pages as a pulpit to protest slavery and advocate for the election of Abraham Lincoln. (Medill later became mayor of Chicago.) Under the stewardship of Medill’s grandson Robert “the Colonel” McCormick during the early 20th century, the paper developed a reputation for hard-line Republican sympathies, revving up circulation with its conservative Midwestern base as it criticized Roosevelt and his New Deal and praised Senator Joseph McCarthy. Post-McCormick, the paper mellowed into a conservative-oriented straight news operation, as if an old-timey Breitbart had morphed into a Midwestern, plainspoken cousin of The Wall Street Journal.

As its flagship paper grew, the Tribune Company expanded, launching a broadcast radio station in 1924 and a television station in 1948, both called “WGN.” (“WGN” stands for “World’s Greatest Newspaper.”) Its second newspaper, the New York Daily News, was founded by Medill’s grandson Joseph Medill Patterson in 1919. Over the years, the Tribune Company continued to acquire media properties, growing into a bona fide multimedia conglomerate, at one pointing owning both the Chicago Cubs and the Food Network. As of this writing, Tronc owns the Chicago Tribune, the New York Daily News, The Baltimore Sun, the Orlando Sentinel, Fort Lauderdale’s Sun Sentinel, the Hartford Courant, The Virginian-Pilot, Virginia’s Daily Press, and the Pennsylvania Lehigh Valley region’s The Morning Call.

The modern Tribune Company’s problems can be traced back to its 2000 merger with the Times Mirror Company, the California-based parent of the Los Angeles Times, The Baltimore Sun, Newsday, and several other media properties. Even in an industry rife with doomed deals and dunderheaded decision-making, Tribune’s decision to subsume Times Mirror proved particularly foolhardy. “That was the beginning of the end, that led from one fiasco to another,” Feder said. “It’s a straight line, and it’s all been in one direction.”

The deal didn’t immediately look so bad on paper; it turned the Tribune Company into a mighty force, the country’s third-largest newspaper group, and upped its worth to an impressive $17 billion. But in practice, it stunk. In his 2011 book The Deal From Hell: How Moguls and Wall Street Plundered Great American Newspapers, former Chicago Tribune and Los Angeles Times editor James O’Shea details how the merger threw the organization into havoc, as two very different tattered newspaper dynasties, the Chandlers in Los Angeles and the McCormick family in Chicago, clashed over the fate of their inherited fortunes. As the uneasy union commenced, the newspaper industry entered into a deepening crisis, subjecting a merger that might have faltered in fair weather to a precarious climate. The industry’s advertising revenue base dropped calamitously, threatened by the internet, online classifieds, and the indignity of scandals about falsified circulation numbers.

“Embedded in the failure of the marriage of the Tribune Company with the Times Mirror Company is a far broader story of monumental egos, fallible souls, larger-than-life characters, and cultural clashes about the collapse of newspapers,” wrote O’Shea, who argued that conventional wisdom about the death of newspapers due to the rise of the internet and declining circulation is insufficiently nuanced. Rather than strengthen the different newsrooms the merger yoked together, the deal enabled its corporate honchos to pursue their own worst instincts on a larger scale. The idea of the newspaper as a civic trust receded in favor of the idea of the newspaper as a resource to be plundered for maximum profit. As O’Shea argued, “The lack of investment, the greed, the incompetence, corruption, hypocrisy, and downright arrogance of people who put their interests ahead of the public’s are responsible for the state of the newspaper industry today.”

After the merger, the Tribune Company pursued large-scale cuts at the newly acquired Los Angeles Times, throwing its largest paper into disarray and creating a toxic workplace culture, in O’Shea’s telling. By the early 2000s, an industry-wide dip in stock prices and years of internecine squabbling among owners made the company attractive to Wall Street types, who were enticed by the possibility of owning a piece of a pie that could be sliced and resold all sorts of ingenious ways. The Tribune Company put itself on the selling block in 2006. “The investors and investment bankers circling Tribune were out to make a buck by creating fee-laden packages of loans that could be converted into securities and peddled to big pension funds, institutional investors, or hedge funds and make even more money,” O’Shea explained. When the Tribune Company sold in 2007, The New York Times described the tussle for ownership as the “battle of the billionaires.” The victor was a bulb-nosed, gruff real estate tycoon with no media ownership experience named Sam Zell. (Zell declined to comment for this article.)

Zell’s stewardship of the Tribune Company was short and sour. The moneyman didn’t bother hiding his disdain for the journalists: “My attitude on journalism is very simple. I want to make enough money that I can afford you,” he told an Orlando Sentinel reporter. “You need to, in effect, help me by being a journalist who focuses on what our readers want, and therefore generates more revenue.” When the reporter noted that readers wanted “puppy dogs” instead of hard news, Zell exploded.

“You’re giving me the classic, what I would call, journalistic arrogance of deciding that puppies don’t count,” he spat. “Hopefully we get to the point where our revenue is so significant that we can do puppies and Iraq, OK? Fuck you!”

The situation did not get better from there. One year after Zell purchased the Tribune Company, it declared bankruptcy. The man known as “the grave dancer,” for his ability to turn failure into riches, had dug the company into a financial hole. Zell, accustomed to taking huge gambles on real estate development deals, had piled around $14 billion in debt onto the company, only to see it sink in the recession. “Zell blew it by treating the purchase of this august newspaper company like, well, like just another real estate development,” Forbes explained at the time. “The deal he structured to buy the company was classic Zell: awfully clever, perhaps too clever,” The New Yorker reminisced last year. “He borrowed billions of dollars ($11.5 billion, to be precise, bringing the total amount of debt on the company to fourteen billion dollars) and risked just enough of his own money, through Equity Group Investments, his investment firm—three hundred and fifteen million dollars, about six per cent of his net worth—so that he could lose it without feeling too much pain.” This gamble had a human price; more than 4,200 people lost their jobs under Zell’s cocksure and cockeyed rule. “I don’t think there’s much that’s positive to say about the Zell era,” Poynter media reporter Rick Edmonds told The Ringer.

After it declared bankruptcy, the Tribune Company began shedding some of its most storied holdings to raise cash. It sold control of the Chicago Cubs and Wrigley Field to the Ricketts family (which would later be part of its own journalistic scandal when patriarch Joe Ricketts shuttered DNAInfo and the Gothamist local news websites to spite their unionization efforts). In 2013, after it emerged from bankruptcy, ownership decided to split the company in two. In 2014, Tribune Media was established to focus on the broadcasting arm, while Tribune Publishing emerged as the newspaper-minded organization. In 2016, Michael Ferro, the majority owner of the Chicago Sun-Times, became the largest shareholder of Tribune Publishing.

At the time, the Zell debacle looked like a rough bottom for Tribune journalists. Instead, Zell’s doomed ownership pushed the company into a murky era, defined by inscrutable choices and dwindling options for its workers.

Chicago is a two-newspaper town, and Ferro’s story in the media starts at the Chicago Tribune’s rival, the Chicago Sun-Times, known for its tabloid style and employment of Roger Ebert. After making his fortune during the first dot-com boom, by taking his e-commerce startup Click Commerce public in 2000, Ferro created an equity firm called Merrick Ventures. (Click busted soon after he left.) Like Zell, Ferro had a yen for big risk; Merrick bought a stake in a health care startup called Merge and installed Ferro as its chairman as it was “on the brink of bankruptcy,” as Chicago magazine’s Bryan Smith put it in a rare 2013 profile of Ferro. In August 2013, Merge’s stock tanked. “Ferro took the drastic step of publicly apologizing and stepping down as chairman,” Smith wrote. (Ferro did not respond to requests for comment.)

Ferro was preoccupied with media mogul dreams, anyway. He’d been encouraged to get into the news world by his mentor, John Canning Jr., a prominent Chicago investor. “[Canning] thought Michael was a very creative guy,” O’Shea told The Ringer, noting that Canning had suggested that Ferro head up a campaign to buy into the Chicago media scene. “And that’s how Michael got into newspapers.” In 2011, Ferro became the lead investor in Wrapports, a holding company created to buy the Sun-Times. “The name signifies a merging of the ‘wrap’ of a traditional print publication with the ‘ports’ of tech ventures,” Ferro told Smith. (A close reader might note this as a warning sign of Ferro’s interest in running companies with stupid names.) The startup-minded Ferro installed a game room and candy dispensers, but quickly rankled many members of the newsroom. Under Ferro, the Sun-Times fired all of its photojournalists, which led to complaints that the Sun-Timescovers looked terrible. (It later hired some of the photographers back.) He oversaw a Wrapports property called Aggrego, a content farm that relied on young interns to pump out unoriginal chum. As he laid off real reporters, he hired celebrity antivaccination personality Jenny McCarthy as a columnist. “The Sun-Times thing was a complete disaster,” Feder said. And yet Ferro looked around for more media properties to control.

“The Sun-Times deal is very small potatoes for him. This is someone who has set his sites on gobbling up other big companies,” former Tribune and Sun-Times employee Jim Warren told Chicago radio station WBEZ in 2017. “One reason why he spurned the entreaties over that year and a half by a major, major newspaper company, Gannett, which wanted to buy what we now know as Tronc—and why he would love to somehow turn the tables by buying them or buying one of the several ailing media companies such as McClatchy—he wants to be a big shot.”

Michael Ferro
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Ferro’s Merrick Ventures snagged a majority investment in the Tribune Company in 2016, and Ferro installed Justin Dearborn as the CEO. Then came the infamous name change. Then came the ideas, which were just as odd as the ones presented at the Sun-Times, if not more so. Ferro wanted to use artificial intelligence to produce thousands of videos per day. He bought the New York Daily News (which had been sold by the Tribune Company in 1991) back for $1, but then slashed its staff. He pursued draconian cuts across properties, advocating for “flatter” newsrooms. “There was a bunch of nonsense about content funnels,” said Chicago Tribune reporter Peter Nickeas (who is currently on leave for a Nieman Fellowship at Harvard). “It had nothing to do with giving our subscribers something of value to them, or giving non-subscribers a reason to pay for Chicago Tribune journalism.” Slate called Tronc’s promotional materials about the future of its content “a deadly swarm of buzzwords.”

Even though he remained indifferent at best and hostile at worst to traditional journalistic values, Ferro was clearly revved up about the idea of owning media properties. When Gannett attempted a hostile takeover of Tronc, Ferro refused to sell, even as other shareholders clamored for the sale to happen. In fact, he threatened to buy Gannett himself. As much as he remained an outsider when it came to understanding the business he’d gone into, Ferro clearly wanted to remain in it. And, in the end, it was not a misunderstanding of how journalism works that cost Ferro his job; it was his behavior as a person that would ultimately undo his career.

Tribune company culture had never been particularly buttoned-up or reverent, but reports of a machismo-laced and sexually inappropriate environment had started in earnest under Zell. “Tribune Tower, the architectural symbol of the staid company, came to resemble a frat house, complete with poker parties, juke boxes and pervasive sex talk,” New York Times media columnist David Carr wrote in 2010, describing employee complaints about the hostile workplace during Zell’s time. This culture continued under Ferro: Under his watch, Los Angeles Times publisher Ross Levinsohn was reinstated in a different role in the company after NPR reported that Levinsohn had been the subject of two sexual harassment lawsuits and had admitted to inappropriate workplace behavior. After a short leave, Levinsohn became CEO of Tribune Interactive; he continues to hold that position. “There was an ugly period where Tronc looked like a boys’ club full of horrible men,” a New York Daily News staffer said. Ferro himself stepped down as chairman this year after accounts of sexual impropriety from two women. He tried to frame his decision to leave as a voluntary choice, but hours after he left, a report by Fortune telling the women’s stories contradicted that narrative. “To run a media company and have such little regard for basic truth, I think it’s abhorrent,” Lipinski said. “It’s an insult to the very journalists who he employs, and to the mission of that newspaper. Chicago deserves way, way better.”

Whatever he did or did not do to warp the company culture, Ferro’s parting gift to himself is not up for debate. He took $15 million on his way out the door. And Ferro is still very much a part of the ongoing saga. “Tronc is really Michael Ferro, and Michael Ferro is Tronc,” Feder explained. “He’s still calling the shots. … And Ferro is still the largest single shareholder of the company, with more than 26 percent of the company’s shares.”

“Michael’s just not the type of guy who delegates his authority to other people,” O’Shea said. “If Justin [Dearborn] does something, it’s because Michael wants him to do it.”

When asked if Ferro is still involved with decision-making at the company, Tronc vice president of corporate communications Marisa Kollias said, “No. Mr. Ferro retired March 19, 2018. His tenure as chairman was extremely successful in that it dramatically increased shareholder value. Currently, he remains the largest shareholder of the company.”

When asked if Dearborn was guided by Ferro at all, Tronc issued another denial. “Justin Dearborn is the chairman and CEO of the company,” Kollias said. “Obviously, he and Michael are long-time colleagues, but Michael left the board and is now a shareholder only. Mr. Dearborn, consistent with all public company CEOs and chairpeople, speaks to large and institutional shareholders frequently.”

“Say what you will about Michael Ferro, the dude knew how to make money,” a former Tronc employee told The Ringer. “And he managed to give himself that $15 million consulting contract a month before he stepped down for being a big sex pest.”

“He’s still rewarding himself with these enormous payouts,” Feder said. “That’s the biggest scandal of all, how Michael Ferro and a couple of the top executives have essentially used the company as their personal piggy bank.”

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The jarring discrepancy between Tronc’s executive paydays and the belt-tightening it requires for its journalists has, to say the least, not gone unnoticed by its employees. In fact, Tronc’s extreme mismanagement appears to have sparked a wave of unionization efforts among its newsrooms. “There are literally tens of millions of dollars walking out the door with executives that could be going to newsgathering, and could be going to people who, frankly, really need the money, who are working two or three other jobs, in order to afford to work at the Chicago Tribune,” a source at the Tribune noted.

“Last year Mr. Dearborn was the lowest paid executive within our peer group by a very large margin,” Kollias said, when asked about the gulf between Tronc’s executive compensation and the money it gives its newsrooms. “Tronc is committed to paying very competitive salaries in the marketplace for all positions. We are in extremely competitive job markets, and anything less than fair pay and respectful workplace treatment leads to rampant attrition.” As SEC filings indicate, Dearborn pocketed around $750,000 in 2017, although his 2016 compensation was more than $8 million. Meanwhile, Ross Levinsohn, who was named publisher of the Los Angeles Times in August 2017, received compensation of more than $6.9 million in that year. In January 2018, Levinsohn was placed on unpaid leave after women who had worked with him in former jobs said that he harassed them. He was later reinstated and moved to Chicago as Tronc’s digital chief executive.

The austerity measures imposed by Ferro have made it financially impossible for many talented journalists to stay at Tronc-owned papers. “We’ve seen Pulitzer Prize–winning work here. Work that’s won prizes of all kinds. We’ve seen work that’s changed policy in the city and in the state. And yet we’re not seeing regular cost-of-living increases,” Chicago Tribune reporter Mary Wisniewski said. “Our health care costs keep going up. We keep losing very valuable employees who go on for more money either in the private sector or other publications. All of that is causing a loss to our newspaper.”

While Tronc newsrooms still produce excellent work, they have become perpetually strapped for resources, including staff power. At the Tribune, the newsroom’s diminishment hasn’t been as simple as staffers facing down one huge layoff. “Just because you’re not hearing about waves of layoffs doesn’t mean there aren’t problems occurring,” Tribune editor Charlie Johnson said, noting that fewer people were doing more work than ever before. “Newspapers weaken by attrition as top-flight reporters get poached off by this organization or that organization. They’re not replaced. I can’t remember the last time we had a splashy hire that made people sit up and take notice.” Staffers feel ground down by an ever-shrinking newsroom. “The fact that we are losing staff at a very rapid clip right now is disheartening,” Alicia Ramirez said. “The fact that a number of them are not being replaced is making it harder for everybody to do our jobs.”

Even at papers that had already habituated to doing more with less and less, Tronc has brought newsrooms to new lows. “Tronc wasn’t seen as a savior by any means, but it also wasn’t seen as that bad, compared to what we had had,” a New York Daily News staffer told The Ringer, noting that the paper had been weathering cuts under its former ownership as well. But when Tronc purchased the paper, it quickly proved itself remarkably soul-sucking. The company axed about half the august tabloid’s staff this summer in an enormous layoff. “They fired the people who were the most invested in the paper and what it represented,” the staffer continued. “They were the spiritual center.”

The almost comical gulf between executive compensation and the state of the workforce galvanized some newsrooms into collective bargaining. “There were a lot of people who had been at the Tribune for a long time and they hadn’t had a union before, and there was some skepticism whether it would make things better,” Wisniewski said. “But people gradually became convinced as we went along.” Wisniewski cited layoffs and Ferro’s behavior and hefty payout as tipping points for union support.

Sam Zell
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The Chicago Tribune’s unionization is especially notable because the newspaper was historically extremely hostile to unionization. The Tribune quickly squashed strike attempts by three separate production unions during the 1980s, persuading new employees to cross the picket line as scabs and replace the protesting staff. “The Chicago Tribune went more than 150 years, notoriously antiunion, without a union, and it was only under Tronc that the reporters unionized. That tells you something about the relationship and the trust, or lack of trust, of the employees for their owners in a company that had always rejected the idea of unions and rewarded or paid its reporters, and protected them adequately,” Robert Feder observed.

“Under Justin Dearborn and this board of directors, Tronc recognizes and respects the right to unionize. The news business is going through tremendous change and with it, some employee groups feel it is important to organize. While we disagree with that premise, we respect their rights and remain committed to ensuring that our newsrooms are the leading source for award-winning news and information for our readers,” Tronc responded, when asked if its stance on unions had evolved over the years.

“Chicago and L.A. were two of the most virulently antiunion papers in the country,” NewsGuild president Bernard Lunzer said, emphasizing that the industry’s relentless uncertainty had stirred reporters into action, and that the success of the Los Angeles Times unionization effort had showcased how effective a union drive can be. “These folks feel that they have some control over what happens, by the fact that their employer has to sit down with them and discuss what’s going forward.” This recalibration of power was a driving force in the union drives. “We needed a way to effectively advocate for the newsroom,” Tribune reporter Peter Nickeas said. When The Baltimore Sun became a Tronc property in 2000, it was already unionized, the result of a rebellion by Depression-era journalists struggling to keep their livings. “The union has allowed us to preserve benefits that we wouldn’t have without a contract,” said Baltimore Sun reporter Scott Dance, noting that raises are stipulated in the current contract, which the newsroom has had for around a decade. The more recent groups forming unions were able to consult with their more entrenched fellow paper. “They’re certainly looking to our contract as a model,” Dance said, emphasizing that his paper has an advantage because its union is already so established. “I keep telling them, people have gone on strike for our contract, so it’s a lot better than what we could get if we started from scratch today.” (The last strike at The Baltimore Sun ended in 1987.)

The Los Angeles Times and Chicago Tribune were the largest papers to unionize, but other Tronc properties are now following suite. In Virginia, the Daily Press in Newport News and The Virginian-Pilot in Norfolk launched a joint unionization in September. “The Chicago and L.A. efforts were something we really modeled off of,” Daily Press reporter Josh Reyes said. Tronc, which has owned the Daily Press for years, bought The Virginian-Pilot this past spring; the purchase and plans for a merged news-gathering operation spurred reporters to band together. “The purchase scared a lot of us. Tronc doesn’t have the best reputation,” said Virginian-Pilot reporter Ana Ley. “It was the impetus for a lot of people. On the other hand, a lot of us understand that it’s just a good idea to be in a union, regardless of who owns you.”

Outsiders are less enthusiastic. Feder hypothesized that Tronc is “kicking” contract negotiations “down the road.” Other observers question how much influence the unions might have. “Once a union has been certified, it’s not a sure thing that they will be able to change much or accomplish much,” Poynter’s Rick Edmonds said. “They will probably be able to get better work rules, and talk about their health care benefits, but the unions don’t have at all the power that they used to. I don’t think there’s been a newspaper strike for 20 years or so.”

Meanwhile, the Los Angeles Times has yet to see how Soon-Shiong will respond to its newsroom’s union requests. (Soon-Shiong’s office originally said he would speak to The Ringer for this piece, but then did not respond to repeated follow-up requests for comment.) “The mood right now is a little mixed. We’ve escaped the clutches of Tronc, we’ve escaped this downward spiral we’re in. And people feel really good about that,” Los Angeles Times reporter Matt Pearce said, noting that happiness about new ownership had been tempered by the inconvenience of the Times’ decision to move its office from downtown L.A. to El Segundo, which lengthened transit times and proved to be a de facto pay cut for many of its employees. The newsroom was relieved that Soon-Shiong had rescued the newspaper from Tronc, but still wants to press for a better work environment. “From a labor organizing perspective, it’s kind of complicated because we essentially launched an independence drive from Tronc,” Pearce said. “We essentially made Tronc so miserable that they agreed to sell us. So that’s fantastic.” But Pearce stressed that the newsroom still needs to correct very real inequities for its staffers. “We have what seems to be a pretty cooperative owner who really wants to spend money, but we’ve still got all these problems that we’re trying to deal with.” Pearce noted that the newsroom had identified wage inequity for women and people of color, and that a number of journalists were struggling to live in Southern California on less than $40,000 annual salaries.

Patrick Soon-Shiong
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The Los Angeles Times’ situation is understandably an aspiration for Tronc’s beleaguered workforce. “We’d certainly be up to being bought by someone like Jeff Bezos or Patrick Soon-Shiong, who has a longer view of the business and investing in the newsroom,” said The Baltimore Sun’s Scott Dance. While Tronc puts out job advertisements for someone to deal with its unionizing workers, the L.A. Times is on a staffing spree for actual reporters. Still, anointing Soon-Shiong as the Los Angeles Times liberator would be premature. Bezos’s purchase of The Washington Post is often cited as evidence that a paper’s fortunes may drastically improve if the right rich guy swoops in, but wealthy patrons are no cure-all. “It’s not necessarily the case that a billionaire will come in and then everything’s just peachy,” Edmonds said. “You look at the case of Warren Buffett buying up a group of papers, which he started doing six or seven years ago, and he thought it was a pretty solid business. He said more recently that it turned out to be tougher than he thought. He’s actually put management of the company in the hands of a different firm.”

While he has a longer history of dealing with the news industry than Buffett did when he started his buying spree, Soon-Shiong has made obvious business mistakes before; this summer, a chain of hospitals he bought a controlling stake in declared a financial crisis. It is not clear that he has the skills to run a newspaper properly. Additionally, his history with Ferro is more complicated than it might seem: At the time of the L.A. Times purchase, he was already intimately involved with Tronc, and at one point Soon-Shiong and Ferro were allies, as Soon-Shiong was a friendly investor in Tronc. Even more disconcerting is that Soon-Shiong was once a major supporter of Ferro’s vision to use AI, instead of journalists, to create online content. The falling-out between the two wealthy men appears to have stemmed from disputes over money and personal behavior, not because Soon-Shiong realized that Ferro’s ideas about journalism are flawed. “Dr. Soon-Shiong became alarmed by Mr. Ferro’s lavish spending, particularly for the use of a private plane, and his crass language, according to two people with knowledge of the matter,” a 2017 New York Times report noted.

The newsrooms currently still working under Tronc will, in a best-case scenario, needle their bosses so much that they sell them to a benevolent local rich person. In a worst-case scenario, if they have unionized, they will have at least established collective bargaining power. Neither of these scenarios is particularly rosy. “If you look at what is happening with Alden Global Capital, it’s a version of what was happening at Tronc, but … they were really smart about it,” Pearce observed. “Tronc really did us a favor by being so inept.” Another owner might be far smarter about how to pick the bones of a newsroom.

Despite the reports floating around about buyers, it is not clear how close a sale actually is. “Sometimes people who are talking up deals are interested parties who want to see if they can make it happen,” Edmonds noted. In other words, the impetus for the sudden flurry of reports about a potential Tronc sale may be little more than Tronc wanting these reports to exist. “I don’t know how much to believe about what’s out there, and how much is about trying to manipulate the share price for sale,” a Chicago Tribune reporter told The Ringer, emphasizing that the skepticism among the staff is widespread.

Tronc’s future is very much in the air, but it has already established a legacy. The haphazard paths cut by its recent leaders are indicative of an industry that doesn’t know what to do with itself. Zell and Ferro have become exhibits A and B in the lesson that money and a hankering for media moguldom are not nearly enough to nurture healthy newspapers. While the reporters, editors, designers, and other staffers at Tronc’s papers have continued to manage to produce excellent journalism, they are doing so in a noxious environment, where they’re perceived as disposable cogs in a faulty money-printing machine.

The future of these papers depends on leaders who demonstrate far more sophisticated understanding about the value of the news and newsgathering. Even in this new media Gilded Age, where a growing number of self-styled barons control the press, the gold leaf can crumble away quickly if the billionaire does not treat the news like a unique industry. That oligarchs have been fashioned into saviors of public information is a failure of imagination on its face. But in 2018 it is, unfortunately, an outlook many outlets need to survive. “Journalism is an acquired taste for an owner,” Lipinski said. “You either really believe in that mission, and the notion that this is a civic responsibility and that you carry out this work without fear or favor—and that means without fear or favor of and to the owner—or you don’t.”

The industry will still be unstable whether or not its workers can wrest power back; financial survival may never again be guaranteed for media companies. But as Lipinski noted, the true value of a paper is in its ability to report without fear or favor. Success rests in whether a paper is able to freely pursue the news within the constraints of a perilous business model. Underneath the Flannery O’Connor quote in the Tribune Tower, there’s one more pithy line, cribbed from Albert Camus. “A free press can of course be good or bad,” it reads. “But, most certainly, without freedom, it will never be anything but bad.”

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