When the Tribune Company bought the Times Mirror Company in 2000 (basically a hostile takeover, hardly the “merger” that many called it), the reporters of both the Chicago Tribune and L.A. Times alike were none too pleased. Now James O’Shea, who was an editor for both papers, has written the story of that troubled marriage, and it’s a doozy.
The Deal from Hell: How Moguls and Wall Street Plundered Great American Newspapers mixes great reportage with a memoirist’s recollections from the beginning of the end for newspapers. There are juicy revelations from inside the newsroom, like arguments between editors over how to cover huge stories such as Katrina, plus texts and e-mails sent by Merrill Lynch and JPM analysts looking to score off the L.A. Times’ financial struggles.
In describing his more personal memories, or recalling his interactions with some of the people responsible for the shift that killed these papers, O’Shea at times sounds like someone with an axe to grind. He doesn’t mind making it clear which of the corporate players that he had to work for are villains, from his point of view. He writes that Tribune CEO Dennis FitzSimons was “petty, mean-spirited and almost obsessively single-minded.” By that same token, it’s clear which people he approved of: one hero, described as being well-liked all around, is Dean Baquet, who for most of the book is managing editor at the L.A. Times.
Funny enough, Baquet was just named managing editor of the New York Times this month; he’ll replace Jill Abramson, who is stepping up to fill Bill Keller’s shoes as executive editor. It was fun to see this news having just finished reading about Baquet in O’Shea’s book.
Mostly, though, the book is a fair, blistering chronology of how the merger laid the groundwork for Chi-town mogul Sam Zell’s leveraged buyout of Tribune Company, which is the doomed “Deal from Hell” of the title. “The financial impresarios” that got involved, O’Shea rages, “subordinated the newspaper’s public service mission to their goal of driving the returns of Tribune and other newspaper stocks into the stratosphere.” I guess you could chalk up another sin on Wall Street’s rap sheet.
Throughout the book are little gems and surprising scoops on the newspaper biz in the late 90s and early Aughts. Here’s one: I’d bet most people don’t know that CareerBuilder.com was created by the staff of the Tribune-Times Mirror as a response to Monster.com, which was stealing classified space from the two papers.
And speaking of struggling newspapers, people are always saying that the print media crisis is recent, and a fault of the Internet and its wealth of insta-news, but it was actually back in 1984 that newspaper sales peaked in America, with 63.3 million sold. It was a peak that has never again been reached. Ouch.
The backstage stories O’Shea divulges range from hardcore business bouts to, occasionally, titillating gossip (like Randy Michaels, Sam Zell’s hand-picked, much-hated new CEO, getting a blowjob on the top floor of Tribune Tower). Here’s a good one: In 2005, the Tribune’s Woman News section went to the printer with a front-page story all about the increasingly common use of the word “cunt.” When a livid editor found out about the story last-minute (he had not approved it), he rushed a team of reporters to the printing plant, where they spent eight hours literally removing by hand 600,000 copies of the section from papers before they went out in the morning. I found it fascinating that the editor preferred to slip a letter into the paper apologizing for the absence of the Woman News section rather than let it go out with a story about the dreaded C-word. (Who knows what might have been; perhaps the story would have really stirred up some shit and been a ballsy success. Then again, newspapers have not typically been known as places where the social envelope gets pushed.)
Perhaps the most surprising and entertaining anecdote O’Shea shares is about a meeting at the L.A. Times in the late 90s: reporters, HR people, and consultants entered the room to find three plastic canisters set up. They contained shredded pages of their paper, the New York Times, and the Wall Street Journal. The editor’s important point: the L.A. Times smelled like fish, and it was hurting sales. I don’t think the fishy stench (if that was even true) is the reason the paper is so mediocre nowadays, but a fascinating little scene nonetheless.
This lifelong newspaperman really delivers the dirt on the two ruinous deals involving the Tribune and the Times, making The Deal From Hell a perfect read for the current media moment. Hey, you could pick it up after you watch Too Big to Fail.