Tales to Astonish

I'm late on this but, I wanted to make sure I linked to my old friend David Carr's terrifying piece on Sam Zell's amazing (and successful) quest to bankrupt The Tribune Company within a year of purchase. A few reporting gems deserve mention. Here's Carr on changes wrought after Zell took over:

One of their first priorities was rewriting the employee handbook. 

"Working at Tribune means accepting that you might hear a word that you, personally, might not use," the new handbook warned. "You might experience an attitude you don't share. You might hear a joke that you don't consider funny. That is because a loose, fun, nonlinear atmosphere is important to the creative process." It then added, "This should be understood, should not be a surprise and not considered harassment." 

 The new permissive ethos was quickly on display. When Kim Johnson, who had worked with Mr. Michaels as an executive at Clear Channel, was hired as senior vice president of local sales on June 16, 2008, the news release said she was "a former waitress at Knockers -- the Place for Hot Racks and Cold Brews," a jocular reference to a fictitious restaurant chain. 

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 that Mr. Michaels and Marc Chase, who was brought in to run Tribune Interactive, had a loud conversation on an open balcony above a work area about the sexual suitability of various employees. "The conversation just wafted down on all of the people who were sitting there." She also said that she was present at a meeting where a female executive jovially offered to bring in her assistant to perform a sexual act on someone in a meeting who seemed to be in a bad mood.

Carr on the Tribune's efforts to gin up revenue:


While the new owner and managers went about changing the corporate tone at Tribune, they were also under pressure to service the enormous debt. In his initial tour of the company, Mr. Zell promised there would be no job cuts. But like other media companies caught in the downdraft of advertising revenue, the company was forced to cut staff and slash budgets. 

Elsewhere, the company introduced promotions that seemed to have been drawn from the radio playbook. At four of the company's television stations, an event called "CA$H GRAB," in which a viewer was led into a bank vault and allowed to scoop up dollar bills, was inserted in the middle of the station's newscasts. 

At WPIX-TV in New York, the viewers were cheered on by clapping Hooters waitresses, giving the station the appearance of televised shock radio. Mr. [Lee] 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.

On the future of innovation at The Tribune Company:

...management still is confident that the new thinking has Tribune on the right track. The company recently announced the creation of a new local news format in which there would be no on-air anchors and few live reports. The newscasts will rely on narration over a stream of clips, a Web-centric approach that has the added benefit of requiring fewer bodies to produce. "The TV revolution is upon us -- and the new Tribune Company is leading the resistance," the announcement read. 

And judging from the job posting for "anti-establishment producer/editors," the company has some very strong ideas about who those revolutionaries should be: "Don't sell us on your solid newsroom experience. We don't care. Or your exclusive, breaking news coverage. We'll pass."

It's cliche to say this, but here is a story wherein you can't decide between laughing and crying. 
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Ta-Nehisi Coates is a national correspondent at The Atlantic, where he writes about culture, politics, and social issues. He is the author of the memoir The Beautiful Struggle.

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