Friday, June 17, 2011

On cracking open "The Deal From Hell"

Posted By on 06.17.11 at 08:30 AM

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I've been waiting a long time to read James O'Shea's take on the 2000 merger of the companies that owned the Chicago Tribune and the Los Angeles Times. At the time O'Shea was deputy managing editor of the Tribune; in 2006 he'd become editor of the Times; 14 months later he'd quit over budget cuts. And 11 months after that, the company filed for bankruptcy.

So the insider's tale O'Shea tells is that of an epic business disaster, placed in the context of the whole industry driving itself off a cliff. Hence the subtitle: "How moguls and Wall Street plundered great American newspapers."

I'm 50 pages in and riveted. I expect to stay that way. After finishing only the introduction, I was eager to post some thoughts.

Aside from everything that I expect O'Shea will tell us was wrong financially with the merger of the Tribune and Times Mirror companies, it was imperialistic lunacy. When the merger was merely an idea everyone knew was being kicked around by the brass, Times journalists were "scared" by it, but "the idea intrigued those of us at the Tribune, raising hopes that our paper might finally get the recognition it deserved from its snooty rivals on the coats."

In other words, let's go in and kick some butt. This is roughly the reason the public is always ready to fight the next war. The Times staff, naturally enough, found the experience of being colonized by Chicago intolerable, and O'Shea confronted their hostility when he became Chicago's man on the scene. He writes, "'I don't care what you do here,' one longtime friend and member of the Times staff told me. 'You will always be viewed as a hatchet man from Chicago in this newsroom.'"

O'Shea continues, "A number of friends at the Chicago Tribune couldn't understand why I would go to rescue journalists who had treated us so disrespectfully. 'Remember,' one close friend said, 'these are the people who refused to wear lanyards [securing their 2004 Democratic National Convention credentials around their necks] because they had the name Tribune on them.'"

These Tribune friends were presumably a very smart group of people. Yet the disrespect coming from LA baffled and offended them! If no one in Chicago could even see that the lanyards worn by the Times reporters should say Times, there was no hope for the merger. Did the Trib folk feel some delight in cutting the west coast snoots down to size?

O'Shea will have much more to say about the merger later in his book. (At the moment he's quick-stepping through his youth and early career.) For now he's got me wondering: did underlings who wanted the deal to go through because they wanted to stick it to LA play a fatal role in egging on the Tower brass in its act of folly?

Embedded in his tale of the merger from hell, O'Shea writes, "is a far broader story of monumental egos, fallible souls, larger-than-life characters, and cultural clashes about the collapse of newspapers — the institutions that write the first, crucial draft of history and the only industry America's forefathers considered important enough to single out in the U.S. Constitution."

Time out! I am not a constitutional scholar, but my search of the document finds no mention of newspapers, and only one of the press, the familiar First Amendment stipulation that "Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press. . ." This is, if I'm not mistaken, simply a guarantee that the written as well as the spoken word will be protected; about the health of multimedia conglomerates, the Constitution is not only silent but seems utterly indifferent.

Clearly O'Shea is a newspaper romantic. So am I. But I'm not sure if in these confusing times, romanticism gets us anywhere.

Back to the book...

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