On Culture/Media: “The Deal From Hell” (review)

Newspapers pictured on cover: “LA Times”, “The Baltimore Sun”, “Chicago Tribune”, “Newsday”, “Hartford Courant”,

In which I consider an insider’s account of the fall of a once-venerable media company.

If journalism is the first draft of history, James O’Shea’s The Deal From Hell (Public Affairs, 2011) is the first draft of one of the biggest events to occur in this decade-long time of tumult for the newspaper industry. O’Shea, former managing editor of the Chicago Tribune and editor in chief of the Los Angeles Times, gives his account of the Tribune Company’s blockbuster takeover of the Times Mirror company, and the later purchase of the company by the brash Chicago businessman Sam Zell.

As someone who takes an interest in journalism and its future, these sorts of “inside the newsroom” chronicles are hard to resist. This time last year I was powering through a book recounting the Murdoch takeover of the Wall Street Journal. I also should disclose here that last summer I interned at a law firm that was doing work on the bankruptcy of the Tribune Company.

O’Shea begins the book with a somewhat misty eyed look back at his own career in journalism, how he worked his way up from a plucky Iowa paper to the newsroom of the Chicago Tribune. While there are some great anecdotes about the eccentricities of the paper and Iowa contained here, the section is mercifully short, just long enough for us to get a sense of the author and his formative years.

We shift a sort of 3 pronged narrative from here—the book drifts from more tales of his Tribune career to explaining the long and gradual shift of both the Tribune and L.A. Times from hyper-partisan Republican papers to respected national players. The third prong is the gradual shifts in the newspaper business. Beginning in the 1970s, evening newspapers disappeared to changing social habits, and most newspaper companies, including the then-separate Tribune and Times Mirror companies, went public on stock markets. As O’Shea would have it, this was the Trojan horse that led to profits becoming paramount over the public interest at many newspapers.

As we get into the sections on the Tribune/Times Mirror merger in the late 90s, we see the author shift from describing the backroom dealings to the reactions in both major newsrooms.  A section follows detailing his time as managing editor of the Tribune. What I find remarkable here is that despite the strong incentive to deflect or soften blame for mistakes under his watch (a section headlined with an article on the word cunt, for example, that hurriedly was pulled, or several photos that were mis-captioned as belonging to Chicagoland criminals), he does not come off as self serving.

In this section we are also introduced to the effects of new management’s affinity with the concept of market journalism, the practice of tailoring story selection to what brings in the biggest audience. While long in effect at Tribune’s television stations, post merger management tried to port the concept to the company’s newspapers, in the process breaking down the “wall” between the business and journalism wings of the paper (the consequences of this are a theme that O’Shea leans hard on in the latter portion of the book). Here we also see some of the skepticism with which newspaper reporters view television reporters on display.

The “Grave Dancer”, Sam Zell, conveniently pictured in front of a representation of Tribune’s newspaper assets.

Management at Tribune in 2006 shifted O’Shea to the Los Angeles Times after a very public controversy with the previous editor over cuts to the paper. Soon, one of the few unequivocal villains in the story (as the author tells it), Sam Zell, enters the picture. The Chicago businessman begins to express interest in buying the Tribune Company. The resulting mid-2007 deal led to the company buying out all of its shareholders and going private (off the stock market), at a per-share amount of $34 a stock, much higher than the open market would have given. As a result, the company took on several billion in debt.

James O’Shea speaking to staff at the “Los Angeles Times” about his departure as editor-in-chief.

The end of 2007 saw new management beginning to assert their control over the company, and O’Shea is removed from the LA Times over budget disagreements. He goes into expected detail about the nature of his removal, but this development means that we see the most catastrophic sequence of events—Zell cronies taking over Tribune and turning the work environment into one resembling a fraternity house—as outsiders. The infamous New York Times expose of management outrages gets substantial play here, with slight contextualization from O’Shea, as well as some obligatory personal reflection.

The Tribune Company filed for bankruptcy in 2008, and has been going through proceedings for several years. Rumors surfaced just this week of new candidates to lead the company, with former NBC executive Jeff Zucker in the mix. James O’Shea went on first to a fellowship at Harvard’s journalism school, and then birthed the Chicago News Cooperative, a nonprofit that later partnered with the New York Times on Chicago centered content. Even so, the venture ran into financial trouble and closed earlier this year.

The Deal From Hell weaves a great narrative, and tells the story of the deal in a rather evenhanded and comprehensive fashion. Considering the book is written by one of the arguable victims of the company’s recent troubles, the narrative is fair to most of the main players.  I generally agree with the author’s broader ideas on journalism, and they are not advocated in a way that detracts from the story. I give the book 4/5 stars, and at 348 pages of narrative content, it is a relatively quick read. A paperback edition is set for release in late August.

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