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Tribune CEO: Reports of 'frat house' atmosphere not true

Tribune CEO: Reports of 'frat house' atmosphere not true

As mediation talks broke down in the Tribune Co. bankruptcy case this week, the U.S. publisher is also being scrutinised following a report by The New York Times' David Carr on the inappropriate work culture ushered in as executives took their places under Sam Zell in 2008. Tribune management and work culture quickly came to "resemble a frat house, complete with poker parties, juke boxes and pervasive sex talk," Carr writes in the detailed article.

Zell took the company private in 2007 in an US$8.2 billion deal. Under the leadership of Zell and Randy Michaels, a former radio executive who was promoted to chief executive at the company in December 2009, it was initially thought the two would "breathe innovation and reinvention" into the company. Rather, the new leadership definitely changed the work culture, but through questionable management behaviour, sources told Carr.

Image: Wall Street Journal

Reaction to The NY Times story within the Chicago Tribune's newsroom yesterday "was muted, in part because many of the anecdotes in the story were familiar to them," Crain's Chicago Business reported.

The picture Carr paints of the Tribune is an important one that executives should take a close look at, the Atlantic's James Fallows wrote: "When we talk about the fate of journalism, we usually talk about the big, structural economic and technological pressures - the shift of classified ads to Craigslist, of paid subscribers to free online readers, and so on ... But as Carr demonstrates, very human qualities - including greed, mismanagement, crassness, and bad judgment - play their part as well."

The Tribune Co. was one of the top U.S. media sources known for "quality journalism and a real brand integrity, and in just a year, pushed it down into mud and bankruptcy," Ken Doctor, a newspaper analyst with consulting firm Outsell Inc. told The NY Times. "And it's been wallowing there for the last 20 months with no end in sight."

The first incident that foreshadowed what was to come involved Michaels offering a waitress $100 to show her breasts, two Tribune executives told Carr. This type of inappropriate behaviour became the norm, he writes:

"Based on interviews with more than 20 employees and former employees of Tribune, Mr. Michaels's and his executives' use of sexual innuendo, poisonous workplace banter and profane invective shocked and offended people throughout the company. Tribune Tower, the architectural symbol of the staid company, came to resemble a frat house, complete with poker parties, juke boxes and pervasive sex talk."

For his part, Michaels has denied the incident with the waitress, and has denied any wrongdoing. He stated in an e-mail to employees, sent just hours before The NY Times' story appeared on its website: "Carr's line of inquiry "concerned events, distortions and rumors more than two years old" and an outside firm's investigation found "the most substantial of these allegations ... to be without substance," according to a blog post in the Chicago Tribune. He further pointed out, "Mr. Carr has made clear that he is digging up these old allegations because he believes that decisions about the company's management are about to be made, and he wants to influence those decisions."

Justifying his intents to create a fun, non-linear environment, Michaels wrote in the memo: " I am tremendously proud of the results of that creative culture," and later added, "The fact that so many at other media companies dwell on the way it used to be creates great opportunity for those of us willing to rethink our opportunities and recast our culture. Ignore the noise. Treat each other with respect. Have fun, and let's go create the future," reported.


Savita Sauvin


2010-10-07 22:33

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