How Not to Run a Newspaper, or Anything Else

The fall of the Chicago Tribune, as documented by David Carr in the New York Times, is a must read. It’s basically a story of some hyper-aggressive hot shots with money who bought the Chicago Tribune company. And then they ran the Trib into the ground, in part because they had absolutely no understanding, or even appreciation, of the news business, and they made horrible decisions. An average sixth grader could have done no worse.

And as you read it, you might think, how did assholes get to be in charge of everything?

You really don’t have to have worked in newspapers to have experienced something like this. The Trib experience was a bit extreme, but I suspect just about everyone who has worked for a large corporation, or even smaller companies, for at least a decade has experienced being managed by a bullying, incompetent fool.

Part of the problem is that a genius for self-promotion and elbowing one’s way to the top is not necessarily accompanied by any other kind of intelligence. You see this over and over again in small organizations and committees, where the most assertive and self-assured person will end up being the leader, regardless of other experience or “smarts.”

You see this especially if you’re in departments such as production, manufacturing or engineering. The people making decisions about how you do your job usually have no clue what you do. They came up through the ranks of finance and marketing, careers that reward hubris and hyper-aggression, but not necessarily competence. They know how to make deals, but they have no clue how to make products. And, of course, they have no interest in the opinions of the people who do know how to make products.

Often the company’s actual product is an afterthought to the big shots, as it clearly was to the neanderthals who took over the Tribune. They had absolutely no appreciation for the art of newsgathering and reporting, nor did it seem to dawn on them that people buy newspapers to read the news.

Mr. Abrams, who describes himself as an “economic dunce,” was made Tribune’s chief innovation officer in March 2008. In his new role, he peppered the staff with stream-of-consciousness memos, some of which went on for 5,000 typo-ridden, idiosyncratic words that left some amused and many bewildered.

“Rock n Roll musically is behind us. NEWS & INFORMATION IS THE NEW ROCK N ROLL,” he wrote in one memo, sent in 2008. He expressed surprise that The Los Angeles Times reporters covering the war in Iraq were actually there.

The other thing that strikes me about this article is the degree to which so many people are intimidated by The System into silence. Time and time again we read,

… said one of the Tribune executives present, who declined to be identified because he had left the company and did not want to be quoted criticizing a former employer

A woman who used to work at the Tribune Company in a senior position, but did not want to be identified because she now worked at another media company in Chicago, said …

Staff members who had concerns did not have many options, given the state of the media business in Chicago, the woman said. “Not many people could afford to leave. The people who could leave, did. But it was not in my best interest to have my name connected to an E.E.O.C. suit,” she said, referring to the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. (Indeed, there are no current E.E.O.C. complaints against the Tribune Company.)

A person who worked in security at the time confirmed to The New York Times that a security guard reported seeing the incident. That person declined to be identified because of the sensitivity of the issue.

Not everyone quoted was off the record, but this gives you a sense of how little freedom people have sometimes. Not that you’d ever get a libertarian to admit private business can oppress its employees.

11 thoughts on “How Not to Run a Newspaper, or Anything Else

  1. A libertarian would say that it isn’t oppression because employees “choose” to work for the incompetent employer. In their fantasy world, it is nothing to quit and find another job, or to move anywhere in the world to work in your profession. If we don’t want to do whatever it takes, that means that we don’t want to leave badly enough.

    The fact that the quoted Tribune employees wanted to remain anonymous, for fear of being blacklisted, has nothing to do with it. They “chose” to work in an insular industry with vindictive employers–how can that be oppression?

  2. “Part of the problem is that a genius for self-promotion and elbowing one’s way to the top is not necessarily accompanied by any other kind of intelligence”

    That is so true, fortunately the company I worked for learned its lesson. My employer bought out the second largest company in our field when it was driven into the ground by just such practices. They put marketing and sales folk (frat boy types, you know the popular people) in charge of engineering and manufacturing divisions and drove competent managers and engineers away. Soon one of this countries most noticeable symbols of American engineering and manufacturing superiority was crippled, a has been corporation split up and sold off to various companies foreign and domestic. The company I work for has rebuilt the engineering and manufacturing sector into a world leader, my boss and his boss and his boss are all engineers, no marketing folks with their phony team building bullshit to deal with, and guess what it works!

  3. What a ‘fustercluck!’
    But it’s really just a microcosm of pretty much every large business in this country. It’s the era of the “MBA Frat Boyz.” So, ‘Show me your T*T”S!’ is NOT sexual harassment, it’s an open, loose, and fun-loving environment.
    An MBA goes a long way in this world. And once you’re in, you’re in! As long as you stick to the program. (Wingnut Welfare works on the same priciple). I worked in the telecommunication field for years, and I saw a lot of this same behaviour. I don’t miss that part of my job, you know, trying to explain obviously and remarkably stupid decisions and make them sound reasonable, which is what a trainer has to do.
    They give huge bonuses to themselves and their cronies, to get it while the getting is still good, while the real workers are downsized, their pensions used to finance the rape of the rest of the company.
    Everyone in on the fix walks out with a nice golden parachute to live the rest of their worthless lives in gated communities, while the rest of the workers just try to hang onto their job, or if they lose it, try to survive. Somehow. How? No one gives a sh*t! They got theirs.

  4. There’s a backstory here for Angelenos, that was shown on PBS, Inventing LA: The Chandlers and their Times, a year or two ago.

    The LA Times, started by Harrison Otis, started out as a booster paper, a promotion for the region and for right wing politicians and causes. Years later (approx 1960s), fourth generation heir, Otis Chandler transformed the Times into a world class newspaper doing real journalism. Richard Nixon was stunned that the paper didn’t automatically come to his side when running for either governor or president (I forget which). He felt betrayed. The paper had bureaus around the world, instead of just being a promotion for Southern California.

    The Chandler family by this time, tired of Otis’ high minded penchant for real journalism, found a way to oust him, and the paper began its long descent, of which the Tribune purchase is just the final sorry chapter. The Chandlers, perhaps seeing the writing on the wall for newspapers in general, wanted out.

    You go around Los Angeles, and the mention of Otis Chandler and the LA Times (to anyone who knows the local newspaper scene) will bring a sad reaction, a bowing of the head and a slow shaking of the head, a recognition that something great was lost.

    It’s not just money hungry opportunists like Sam Zell and his associates that eviscerate great institutions; it’s people within the very family that created, built up, and benefitted from these institutions in the first place, that can destroy in the name of a quick buck. In the video, a columnist with long connections to the Times was asked something like “how could a family do this?”, and his response (I don’t remember the exact quote) was along the lines of “would wolves care about art?”

  5. Mr. Wood, the board member, said, “We think they earned those bonuses. They’ve done a fabulous job in very difficult circumstances.”

    WTF? How do they actually define fabulous?

    The fact is, Zell is known for being free with money. I just thought it was for his own sake tho. I mean, he had Elton John flown in to perform at one of his birthday parties, but since this problem, he hasn’t done anything near that ostentatious.

  6. Reminds me that a number of years ago a study of CEO’s in America revealed that they were just as maha described – a genius for self-promotion, having elbowed their way to the top, and (what surprised the people conducting the study) of very average intelligence – and, by the way, they were usually all taller than average.

    Of course, there’s the Peter Principle – people are promoted to the level where their work no longer warrants a promotion so there they stay.l

    Something like the following might be a clue as to whats wrong with the media businesses in general: It cost CBS News $7 million/year to run its entire Baghdad bureau. It paid Moonves, its CEO I guess, $40 million/year. Apparently the quality of CBS News was more dependent on Mr. Moonves than on the battery of reporters etc. manning its Baghdad bureau?

  7. I thought it was reported at the time bankruptcy was declaired that Sam Zell loaded a lot of his other business debt on to the Trib. Not so?

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  9. I do not know to which company ‘uncledad’ is referring. But in the early ’80s I was working on what became an associate degree in accounting. As part of some independent study, I was studying the stock market and one of the companies I looked at was General Motors. I discovered the ‘car’ people such as Harley Earl and Zora Arkus-Duntov were no longer in the decision making chain and the bean counters took over. (Just look at the uninspired 1980s GM products.) I decided then that I would not invest in any GM stock. It took 25 years to see the company crash but it had been a hollow shell for many years.

    Second, for 15 years I worked for the U.S. Forest Service. They operate just like the LAT/ Trib people dis. Incompetence is rewarded with promotions.

    Just don’t rock the boat.

  10. In [the libertarians’] fantasy world, it is nothing to quit and find another job, or to move anywhere in the world to work in your profession.

    I know it’s a stereotype that libertarians all live in their mothers’ basements and sell Amway on the side, but whenever one of their ilk pops up here, the lack of real-world working experience becomes painfully obvious in an instant. I bet if we polled the frequent commenters on this site, we’d average at least 35 years working experience in a total of a hundred different industries. I’ve been working for “The Man” since 1976, and I’ve worked in a restaurant, a private hospital, for a manufacturing company, the advertisting dept of a department store, a bank, a clinical research firm, and a property/casualty insurance company. And it always amuses me when libertarians scoff at our life experience.

  11. Yeah, Joan, you’re spot-on!
    I worked in customer service at a department store, bussed tables, and taught in a Maximum Security Prison – and that was while going to college to get my BA.
    Since then, I was a trainer at a number of different companies, ran a small start-up, was a direct sales rep, a bartender, a theatre actor and director, an Adjunct Professor at a mid-sized College, and was a Training Director. That’s pretty much exactly 35 years. Oh, and I got all of those jobs on my own – no crony hires.
    So, Libertarians, don’t scoff. A lot of us have a lot of varied experience which we’ll be glad to discuss with you. If you’d only want to listen.

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