Layoffs Hit 'Chicago Tribune' Newsroom

Mar 16, 2018
Originally published on March 16, 2018 2:17 am
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DAVID GREENE, HOST:

Newspapers around the country have been undergoing layoffs in recent days. And yesterday, it was the Chicago Tribune's turn. Though the numbers of layoffs were not enormous, anxieties are high at that paper's parent company, Tronc. The company also owns the New York Daily News, The Baltimore Sun and other respected big dailies in the country. I want to bring in NPR media correspondent David Folkenflik. Hey, David.

DAVID FOLKENFLIK, BYLINE: Hey, David.

GREENE: So what is going on here? What is Tronc up to with these layoffs?

FOLKENFLIK: Well, there's a couple of things going on. First is there's kind of consolidation of, shall we say, non-reporting jobs happening where a lot of design, layout and other kinds of more technical jobs are being assigned centrally to Chicago. People are being told they may get to apply for them. This is happening around the chain. The second thing is a strategy called gravitas with scale. The idea is they want to take advantage of these very well-known traditional newspaper brands - as you mentioned, The Baltimore Sun, the Hartford Courant, Chicago Tribune, New York Daily News and others - and then put out a heck of a lot more digital content, trying to draw much greater readers than the tens of millions they already serve each month.

GREENE: So, I mean, is this more tough times for newspapers? Or is this a company trying to figure out how to serve audiences better in sort of the new digital age?

FOLKENFLIK: Well, they say that's exactly what they're trying to do at Tronc in statements last night and previously. It's worth listening to some of the jobs that they're going to replace some of these journalists with when they consolidate things in Chicago. They're looking for content producers, aggregators, video content partners outside of Tronc, syndicated materials from syndicates and what they call deep, micro-niche, vertical entrepreneurs, people who...

GREENE: What?

FOLKENFLIK: ...Can publish online and who they say are bringing their own audiences built-in.

GREENE: These are not jobs that existed when you and I worked for The Baltimore Sun, I don't believe.

FOLKENFLIK: Not so much.

GREENE: Well, what is - you have looked at this strategy at Tronc pretty hard for a piece on our website. I mean, what are you learning about a newspaper and journalism today as you sort of look at what they're doing?

FOLKENFLIK: Well, I think there's real questions in newsrooms around the country for Tronc - newsrooms, generally, but for Tronc in particular about two things - whether or not decisions are being made that are going to sustain the kind of journalism that people need and, secondly, whether decisions are being made in the interest of the journalism and in the interest of the shareholders and in the interest of the audiences. There's an executive there who's overseeing digitals, a guy named Ross Levinsohn, who I took a look at. And there were a couple of moments in his business past that were worth at least being aware of. He has held a number of really impressive jobs in digital areas at Fox. He was a top guy at Yahoo. When he was at Yahoo a little over a decade ago - excuse me, less than a decade ago - he advocated the acquisition of a firm that he'd helped to co-found with a partner of his.

And that partner later cut him a private check that he said was just in thanks for all the work he had done over the years on sustaining that company, not for that transaction. Why does that matter? Well, as a $600,000-a-year consultant for Tronc, before he became an executive, Ross Levinsohn, three weeks into that consultancy, helped to co-found another startup that is a digital content startup. And he introduced the CEO of that venture to Tronc executives to see if they would be willing to take a major stake in the company. They did not. And at the same time, people at some of the Tronc properties are wondering, you know, in whose best interests are some decisions being made?

GREENE: Interesting - all right, getting behind some of the layoffs we've seen in recent days and looking at Tronc, a company that owns the Chicago Tribune and some other important daily newspapers in the country. NPR media correspondent David Folkenflik. David, thanks.

FOLKENFLIK: You bet.

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