By paulgillin | June 6, 2008 - 8:03 am - Posted in Fake News

As the Tribune Co. empire unravels, CEO Sam Zell is growing increasingly desperate. Now he’s inciting an openly hostile relationship with his editors. In a call with media and analysts on Thursday, Chief Operating Officer Randy Michaels outlined plans to cut the trim sizes of many of the papers in Tribune’s portfolio in order to save on paper costs. But what will make him public enemy #1 with the company’s journalists were his incendiary statements about reporter productivity.

Noting that Los Angeles Times reporters turn out about one-sixth as many column inches as their counterparts in Hartford or Baltimore, Michaels issued a warning to writers and editors. “When you get into the individuals, you find out that you can eliminate a fair number of people while eliminating not very much content,” he said. “[W]e believe that we can save a lot of money and not lose a lot of productivity.”

Michaels did acknowledge that some kinds of reporting take more time than others, but his warning will earn him no fans among the ink-stained wretches of the newsroom. Reporters hate having their output measured like stacks of cordwood and the practice of counting inches, which is popular with accountants, is universally despised by journalists. The easiest way to jack up productivity, of course, is to rewrite press releases and cut back on editing, which creates a sloppy product that people don’t want to read.

It appears that quality isn’t much on the minds of Sam Zell’s management team these days, however. Michaels also outlined plans to tighten ad-edit ratios, eliminating about 82 pages a week from the LA Times alone. “A paper looks good at 50% advertising,” he said. “[Y]ou can take 500 editorial pages a week out of newspaper and have a 50/50 ad-to-content ratio.”

You can assume that Times staffers are already running the numbers to figure out how many positions will be cut to meet the news ad-edit guidelines. Using Michaels’ estimate of 51 pages per year per journalist and assuming a cut of 4,100 pages per year under the new guidelines, you get a total headcount reduction of 80. And that’s not including the fact that Michaels thinks journalists should produce a lot more copy than they currently are producing. If the Times were to double journalist output, then the paper could theoretically be run with half the editorial staff, and that’s before any page count reductions are taken into account.

Looking at Tribune Co. as a whole, one can calculate some assumptions about coming staff cuts. Michaels said the company “could take about 500 pages out of our newspapers every week.” That figures out to 26,000 pages per year. Assuming the productivity figures outlined above, that nets to a cut of about 100 reporters. Michaels also said that editorial costs make up only one-sixth of the total operating costs of a newspaper. So if you assume, conservatively, that three non-editors can be cut for each editor, the company is probably thinking of a reduction of at least 400 positions. And since everyone needs to be more productive, you can probably safely double that. Please note any errors in my thinking.

Romenesko posts a memo by Hartford Courant Executive Editor Clifford Teutsch that attempts to ease reporter anxiety. Teutsch says all the right things in paying homage to the value of quality reporting, but also notes that “We are going to have to make significant newshole and staff reductions. We want you to know what we face.” Zell and Michaels said that staffing decisions would be left with the management of individual papers but that Tribune would give those executives a lot of data about average productivity across the company’s portfolio to use in making those decisions. Assume that it will be hard for managers to justify maintaining staffing levels that are outside the average range.

Zell commented Thursday that “We underwrote the [buyout] expecting a continued suppression of print revenue, but nobody, including us, expected the kind of dramatic change that occurred in the first quarter.” I’m not so sure that everyone was as bewildered as Sam. Back in April, 2007, I noted in a post on my social media blog that in Zell’s first published interview with Tribune staffers, he had barely mentioned the Internet as a challenge to the paper’s business. This struck me as very strange for a man who was about to take on the challenge of running a vast media empire. Could it be that the Tribune Co.’s predicament was unpredictable only to Sam Zell?

Update: Alan Mutter understands the economics of the newspaper business as well as anyone. I this post, he underscores the seeming randomness of Zell’s tactics. Sam Zell has the permission of investors, managers and even line-level employees to reinvent Tribune Co. and even journalism to some extent, but his recent tactics smack of panic.

Quoting Mutter: “The problem is that no business can remain successful over the long term if the only way it addresses declining sales is by cutting costs. You not only begin to degrade the product but eventually run out of things to cut. Businesses must grow sales and profits to build value. If they go the other way for a sustained period, they will falter and potentially fail.”



This entry was posted on Friday, June 6th, 2008 at 8:03 am and is filed under Fake News. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. Both comments and pings are currently closed.

Comments Off on Desperate Zell Attacks Journalist Productivity


  1. June 6, 2008 @ 1:02 pm

    As much as Zell is a fool, he’s party right on this. Every paper has deadweight reporters and editors still working on the 1980s model that they are owed a easy living. Of course, his style of implementing the cuts is not exactly newsroom-friendly and will only lead to more resentment.

    Posted by Newspaperfan
  2. June 6, 2008 @ 5:19 pm

    Sure, he’s desperate. He knows a failing business model when he sees one and he has not only seen one, it has extended its knee and kicked him right in the groin to say “Hi!” That why Zell is so, so, so right on this. Listen, I know the truth hurts, and maybe Zell doesn’t, as a lot of people have been crowing today, “understand how newspapers work.” Well, guess what honey – that’s exactly what the business needs. Someone who doesn’t have any preconceived notions about how things “Were,” or “should be,” because that’s not how things are EVER going to be again.

    If you’ve got someone who has written only 19 not-so-spectacular pieces in the first half of this year, as I do at the paper I work at, is he really pulling his weight? No. He isn’t. He should be looking over his shoulder. Sam’s on the right track. Give people what they want, how they want it, and quit thinking that it’s 1985 anymore. It isn’t.

    There’s probably deadwood galore at the larger Tribune properties, and some of the smaller ones too. I look at any large daily and think one could put out the same paper with half the staff. You know how you find a few branches in your front yard after a storm? Well, there’s a tornado coming, and the newspaper business is your trees. There’s a lot of branches that have not fallen yet.

    I guess I can’t tell if you think this is a good thing or a bad thing. This blog (which I do like, don’t get me wrong) is usually full of straight talk but your tone seems a little angst-ridden now that we have a CEO who is actually talking about doing something.

    Posted by Palmer Cruise
  3. June 7, 2008 @ 8:08 am

    Actually, I basically agree with both of you. Zell is attacking conventional wisdom and I think the industry needs more of that. I question the wisdom of openly confronting the editors in this manner, but desperate times may call for desperate measures. I agree that journalists have long cloaked their craft in a mystique that shields them from being judged by the metrics that most of us must live with. I do think Zell grossly underestimated the task that faced him when he took over a year ago and that his recent tactics are beginning to look like the actions of a man who’s running out of options rather than someone who’s intent on reinventing an industry.

    Posted by paulgillin
  4. June 7, 2008 @ 12:10 pm

    Palmer’s post is right on the money. Their is significant deadweight at every paper, big and small. Mostly the employees in their 50s who never transsitioned to the new way of doing things. The problem is these people are protected by union deals in some cases and managers they worked with years ago who protect them as part of the good ‘ol boys network. That leads to layoffs of younger, better workers, and the product gets even worse. There are many journalists in their 50s and 60s who do a great job, but many more simply think they are owed a living because when their papers were run by families, they’d get a few weeks pay as a Christmas bonus. This in turn leads them to slack off and not care. But since they are protected, why should they?

    Posted by Newspaperfan
  5. March 21, 2009 @ 11:40 am

    […] bottom line.  When business managers with no newspaper background took over at Tribune Co., they started measuring journalist productivity by column inches of copy.  The new owners at the Union-Tribune probably aren’t that dense, but they will almost […]