Wednesday, October 06, 2010

The National Buffoon's Tribune House

Before Tuesday, there was a little bit left of the Tribune Co., after Sam Zell bought it and hired Randy Michaels to turn it into Delta House.

The bankruptcy judges had been trying to make sure of that.

Now, the carcass of a once-respected media empire pretty much has been obliterated by this story in
The New York Times. The Gray Lady did to Michaels' corporate toga party what Dean Wormer wanted to do to the Deltas, but couldn't pull off.

And then, to add insult to nuclear annihilation, the Times informs the Tribune crew that "Fat, drunk and stupid is no way to go through life."

YOU WON'T believe it until you read it. And even then, maybe not:

In January 2008, soon after the venerable Tribune Company was sold for $8.2 billion, Randy Michaels, a new top executive, ran into several other senior colleagues at the InterContinental Hotel next to the Tribune Tower in Chicago.

Mr. Michaels, a former radio executive and disc jockey, had been handpicked by Sam Zell, a billionaire who was the new controlling shareholder, to run much of the media company’s vast collection of properties, including The Chicago Tribune, The Los Angeles Times, WGN America and The Chicago Cubs.

After Mr. Michaels arrived, according to two people at the bar that night, he sat down and said, “watch this,” and offered the waitress $100 to show him her breasts. The group sat dumbfounded.

“Here was this guy, who was responsible for all these people, getting drunk in front of senior people and saying this to a waitress who many of us knew,” said one of the Tribune executives present, who declined to be identified because he had left the company and did not want to be quoted criticizing a former employer. “I have never seen anything like it.”

Mr. Michaels, who otherwise declined to be interviewed, said through a spokesman, “I never made the comment allegedly attributed to me in January 2008 to a waitress at the InterContinental Hotel, and anyone who said I did so is either lying or mistaken.”

It was a preview of what would become a rugged ride under the new ownership. Mr. Zell and Mr. Michaels, who was promoted to chief executive of the Tribune Company in December 2009, arrived with much fanfare, suggesting they were going to breathe innovation and reinvention into the conservative company.

By all accounts, the reinvention did not go well. At a time when the media industry has struggled, the debt-ridden Tribune Company has done even worse. Less than a year after Mr. Zell bought the company, it tipped into bankruptcy, listing $7.6 billion in assets against a debt of $13 billion, making it the largest bankruptcy in the history of the American media industry. More than 4,200 people have lost jobs since the purchase, while resources for the Tribune newspapers and television stations have been slashed.

The new management did transform the work culture, however. 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.

The company said Mr. Michaels had the support of the board.

“Randy is a tremendous motivator, very charismatic, but he is very nontraditional,” said Frank Wood, a member of the Tribune board. “He has the kind of approach that motivates many people and offends others, but we think he’s done a great job.”

The company is now frozen in what seems to be an endless effort to emerge from bankruptcy. (The case entered mediation in September after negotiations failed, and a new agreement between two primary lenders was recently announced.) But even as the company foundered, the tight circle of executives, many with longtime ties to Mr. Michaels, received tens of millions of dollars in bonuses.

Behind the collapse of the Tribune deal and the bankruptcy is a classic example of financial hubris. Mr. Zell, a hard-charging real estate mogul with virtually no experience in the newspaper business, decided that a deal financed with heavy borrowing and followed with aggressive cost-cutting could succeed where the longtime Tribune executives he derided as bureaucrats had failed.

And while many media companies tried cost-cutting and new tactics in the last few years, Tribune was particularly aggressive in planning publicity stunts and in mixing advertising with editorial material. Those efforts alienated longtime employees and audiences in the communities its newspapers served.

“They threw out what Tribune had stood for, quality journalism and a real brand integrity, and in just a year, pushed it down into mud and bankruptcy,” said Ken Doctor, a newspaper analyst with Outsell Inc., a consulting firm. “And it’s been wallowing there for the last 20 months with no end in sight.”

Mr. Zell has acknowledged that the deal has not turned out how he hoped. But noting a recent upturn in results, he said through a spokesman, “Tribune has made significant strides in becoming a current, competitive and sustainable media company. The measure of management’s performance is reflected in the increased profitability of Tribune’s media properties.”

deals rarely turn out like you hoped when you pay too much for properties with too much borrowed money, then put arrested-development corporate scumbags in charge to create a toxic work environment in the name of "creativity," while systematically jettisoning human capital and laying waste to whatever value Tribune's media products once had.

Hang on, though. It gets better, which means worse.
Mr. Michaels, who was initially in charge of Tribune’s broadcasting and interactive businesses as well as six newspapers, was a former shock jock who made a name for himself — and a lot of money for Mr. Zell — by scooping up radio stations while at the Zell-controlled Jacor Communications. Jacor was later sold to Clear Channel Communications for $4.4 billion.

In turn, Mr. Michaels remade Tribune’s management, installing in major positions more than 20 former associates from the radio business — people he knew from his time running Jacor and Clear Channel — a practice that came to be known as “friends and family” at the company.

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.

Staff members who had concerns did not have many options, given the state of the media business in Chicago, the woman said. “Not many people could afford to leave. The people who could leave, did. But it was not in my best interest to have my name connected to an E.E.O.C. suit,” she said, referring to the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. (Indeed, there are no current E.E.O.C. complaints against the Tribune Company.)

There have been complaints about Mr. Michaels in the past, however. In 1995, Mr. Michaels and Jacor settled a suit brought by Liz Richards, a former talk show host in Florida who filed an E.E.O.C. complaint and a civil suit, saying she had been bitten on the neck by Mr. Michaels and that he walked through the office wearing a sexual device around his neck.

“They were like 14-year-old boys — no boundaries at all — but with money and power,” Ms. Richards said in an interview.

with Michaels' reputation in radio. And anyone who thought that one of the middle-aged juveniles who helped destroy radio broadcasting would do the opposite in a field they knew even less about . . . well, we need a hit of whatever he's smoking.

Especially after reading that
New York Times piece.

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