Tribune Co. to be taken private

Looks like the Tribune Company, owners of such design powerhouses as the Los Angeles Times and the Hartford Courant, along with the flagship Chicago Tribune, Newsday, Orlando Sentinel, South Florida Sun-Sentinel and Baltimore Sun will become a private company, accepting a bid from billionaire investor Sam Zell. Romenesko points out a story on E&P that talks to a couple Tribune Co. staffers, but so far there's been little comment about the sale over on VizEds.

ATE: So in an effort to seek comment about the news, the SND International Web Desk (and new guest editor Matt Erickson, SND Region 4 director) asked visual leaders from Tribune newsrooms to share their thoughts and tell us a little bit about the atmosphere since the news broke:

Q: In the wake of today's sale announcement, we're wondering if you could comment on what has gone down and what it means to your newsroom?

Joe Knowles, AME/Design & Graphics
for the Chicago Tribune

The best way I could describe the attitude in the newsroom today is part relief, part apprehension. We're glad there is finally some resolution in terms of ownership, but we're still not clear on the new owner's vision for the company going forward. Sam Zell's track record as a bargain-hunter is pretty good, but we'd love to hear more specifics about his plans. What does he see in the Tribune that Wall Street didn't see? Anyway, as someone who has worked here a long time, I feel like an era is ending ... what's next is really anyone's guess.

Steve Cavendish, Graphics Editor
for the Chicago Tribune

The biggest thing has been the uncertainty. Whether Sam Zell turns out to be good or bad for the Trib, Tribune Co. or newspapers in general remains to be seen, but it's a little easier knowing that the ownership questions are now resolved. It's been a bit unsettling.

From a journalistic point of view, Zell promises to be hands off, which is good. I expect that he will have a very active role on the corporate side of things and that he'll be good at managing the rather massive pile of debt we're about to incur.

Bonita Burton, AME/Visuals
for the Orlando Sentinel

I guarantee you the term "ESOP" is the most Googled in Tribune newsrooms today. Followed, of course, by "Sam Zell."

Everyone wants to know who he is and how his vision will impact the journalism we do.

This is the outcome we've been expecting for some time and honestly, in Orlando, there's as much talk about Florida being in the NCAA finals as there is of the sale. For those of us with little company stock at stake, things aren't much different today than they were yesterday. For longer-term employees, the financial picture is more complex. No one believes the company going private is a panacea, but it's definitely the direction in which we were all hoping to head. None of us are going to miss the Wall Street pressures.

Of course there are new pressures ahead, and that's what most people are buzzing about today. Most of the questions are about changes to the retirement plan (which we are getting answers to) and about job security (which we are not). Sale or no sale, the economic reality is that we need to be more cost efficient. Our publisher assured us today our staff size will continue to decrease, even as we reposition the staff to be more web-centric. So the challenge here is doing more, with less, and faster ... but that's not so different than where we were headed before.

Stephen Komives, Design Editor, Orlando Sentinel
Tribune Company went to lengths to communicate with its employees throughout the process. I give the company credit for that. It's a stark contrast to the scenes we've watched play out in many newsrooms the past few years. Nobody here was taken by surprise and there's a sense of relief that it ended how it did: with a move to go private, with the newspaper division (apparently) remaining intact. But we also know that this doesn't lessen the pressure to work smarter and diversify our skills for multiple platforms, and that the newsroom will get smaller. There are also a lot of questions. Mr. Zell emerged late in the process and we know little about him and less about what his vision might be for Tribune news media and journalism.

Sorry to see the Cubs go. It was cool being so closely associated with a champion.

Kristin Lenz, Designer, Hartford Courant
Overheard at The Courant:

>> "No one asked me if they could take my money."
Discussions of the ESOP, cash balance and 401(k) options were rampant. Lots of confusion and speculation. Older people were asking about their previous pensions, younger people looking at new options, middle-aged seeing how or if they were going to get screwed.

>> "Why would I want to invest my money in this company right now?"
Perhaps the toughest road ahead for Zell: Changing the perception by Tribune's employees will only ultimately lead to a changed perception by the public. Not many are thrilled at what they are investing in at this point in time.

>> "Zellmart"
Will we still be called Tribune? Since we hold part ownership, will we have voting rights?

>> "Is he (Zell) really going to retain (Tribune Chairman, President and CEO Dennis) FitzSimons?"
It's only natural and valid that people have to ask this question.

>> "Still doesn't fix the bottom line."
Bottom line here is double-sided: financial and product success. Though a lot of people were glad all the wheeling and dealing was done, there's still a huge amount of uncertainty about what it means for the innovation and ingenuity of
the company. Questions arose like: As of now, there are plans to homogenize content, but does this deplete individual brands? How do we cut costs and/or drive revenue, but still provide enough bodies to produce top-notch products? Etc., etc., etc.

>> "Do you know who Zell looks like? Yoda!"
With all due respect, it is true. And it's an incredible compliment to be likened to the Jedi Master. If he has the same amount of wisdom and leadership, we might be alright.

>> "This printer smells like it's burning? OH! It's smoking!" ...
"Leave a note for Zell."

Those were just a few things muttered around on a day that felt a little bit like a first date: Excited about the opportunity of someone new, but trepidatious about where it goes from here. We're sitting at the table, fingers crossed that Zell uses the right fork.

Chris Courtney, Design Director for RedEye
The unofficial reply from the RedEye newsroom: Holy crap, they're selling the Cubs!

That's not to say that we aren't concerned about our future, but we're in the middle of adding a new edition of the publication. The team just finished an ambitious expansion of the Web site and we're doing all of this in a newsroom of about 20 people. RedEye operates lean, has a proven track-record of growth and is touted by the execs as part of the bright future of the company.

Most people in the building tonight seem too busy to fret much over who writes the checks, but it's a very normal night on the Red side as we pull together our coverage of the sale of the Cubs. RedEye readers will be most concerned with the future of the Cubs and not the future of their newspaper. We're here for the long-haul.

True to their word:
RedEye has a pretty fun bunch of speculation on who will buy the Cubs!

More comments are coming, but what do you think?

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Blogger Matt Mansfield said...

It always a mix of emotion when something like this comes about, no matter how much it has been telegraphed.

When Knight Ridder was sold, we rode the same roller coaster. I was happy then to have the support of friends in the industry who assured me that my situation was not unique, and I can see they were right. The disruptive change in the print journalism world makes all this sort of inevitable, sadly. (Or maybe it's good, so we innovate faster ... at the speed of a start-up, to quote a friend.)

In the meantime: Thoughts go to all my friends at Tribune papers as you sort through the Sam Zell era. It will not be dull!

Monday, April 02, 2007 8:58:00 PM  

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