Journalism professors, themselves media veterans, aren't mincing words about the Tribune Co.'s recently announced plans to cut employees and news content across its 12 newspapers.
Referring to a recent conference call where Tribune CEO Sam Zell and COO Randy Michaels reportedly promised to eliminate about 500 pages of news per week across its newspapers, as well as an unknown number of jobs, Judy Muller, associate professor of journalism at the University of Southern California and former TV correspondent, says, "I really don't think they understand how journalism works."
In particular, Muller pans the concept that byline or column-inch counts are an accurate barometer of a journalist's value to a news organization, calling it "ignorant."
According to widely published accounts of a June 5 conference call with financial analysts, Michaels said that the company has examined the column inches produced by reporters and staffs at large of each Tribune newspaper, which includes the flagship Chicago Tribune, the Los Angeles Times, and Baltimore Sun.
"It's an outrageous kind of measurement, because journalism is often about going out and investigating things that often don't pan out, and your reporters can't be measured by column inches," she says. "They just look at people as creators of widgets - how many stories this reporter has made may not be enough to justify his or her cost - never mind that that reporter might have one huge widget that wins a Pulitzer Prize and makes a difference to the democracy at large."
By dividing the number of column inches in each newspaper by the number of journalists, Tribune found that reporters at the Sun and Hartford Courant are producing more than 300 pages of news per year, considerably more than the 51 pages per journalist at the LA Times. Therefore, Michaels concluded: "When you get into the individuals, you find out that you can eliminate a fair number of people while eliminating not very much content," according to various media reports.
Tribune is under considerable financial pressure to service nearly $13 billion in debt resulting mostly from last year's $8.2 billion deal to take the company private, says Lou Ureneck, chairman of Boston University's journalism department, who adds that Zell's challenge is "to meet his obligations without eviscerating the company and destroying value."
"There's no shortcutting the reporting process. People have to be interviewed, documents have to be checked, facts have to be verified - that all takes time and counting bylines doesn't take that into account," he said, calling the approach "lazy management." "I think this is more of a commentary on what happens when people owe too much money to buy a media organization and find they have to make reductions that are much more serious than they anticipated to meet their financial obligations."
Tribune has agreed to sell Newsday to Cablevision for $650 million, and Zell has stated that the company also plans to rid itself of the Chicago Cubs and Wrigley Field.
Martha Steffens, professor at the University of Missouri School of Journalism and a former LA Times business desk editor, says company-wide production comparisons are not indicative of the quality of work of journalists, because newspapers are "different products in different markets."
"I hate to see solutions that are... applied literally across the board," she says. "The Los Angeles Times is more of a national newspaper; [it covers] the entertainment industry, arts and culture, foreign news."
A spokesperson for Tribune did not return PRWeek's phone calls seeking comment.