The Tribune Co. purchase of Times Mirror doesn't explain how and why newspapers have gone to hell.

Media criticism.
June 27 2011 10:39 AM

Why Newspapers Have Gone to Hell

No, the answer cannot be found in the reductionist explanation by experienced newsman James O'Shea.

Photograph of James O'Shea.
James O'Shea

Eyewitnesses can't be expected to produce the best dispatches from a calamity. They're usually too bound in bandages and cross-stitched with sutures to understand anybody's pain but their own. That's what sort of witness James O'Shea was to the disastrous purchase of the Los Angeles Times media empire in 2000 by the larger media empire that owned the Chicago Tribune.

From vantage points first in the Tribune newsroom, where he supervised coverage of the deal, then later in the Times newsroom, where Tribune Co. executives installed him as the paper's top editor, O'Shea files a comprehensive report about the genesis of the deal, its rapid unwinding into a novel buyout by real-estate wizard Sam Zell, and the  final descent into bankruptcy, where the combined company languishes today. But his book The Deal From Hell: How Moguls and Wall Street Plundered Great American Newspapers appears to make the reportorial mistake of coming to conclusions first and not letting the evidence, no matter how strong, shake him loose from them.

"The Deal From Hell" by James O'Shea.

In O'Shea's view, the cause of the undoing of the newspapers owned by the Tribune Co. and Times Mirror, as well as other newspapers in the country, has not been the Internet, or declining circulation, or long stories and "skimpy attention spans, or arrogant journalists." It's been the reaction of newspaper executives to those forces. He writes: "The lack of investment, the greed, the incompetence, corruption, hypocrisy, and downright arrogance of people who put their interests ahead of the public's are responsible for the state of the newspaper industry today."

The problem with O'Shea's analysis is that important newspapers whose executives and owners weren't stingy, greedy, incompetent, corrupt, hypocritical, or arrogant have also been forced to reduce news pages, cut whole sections, close bureaus and decimate newsrooms. Both the Washington Post and the New York Times, long controlled by families that have taken immense pride in providing the public service of great journalism, have bent before recent market forces and made the cuts that O'Shea deplores. (Candor demands that I point out that I work for Slate, which is owned by the Washington Post Company.)

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When the Hearst Corp. paid $660 million for the San Francisco Chronicle and paid another publisher $66 million to take its San Francisco Examiner off its hands in 2000, it had no idea that its losses would be so great by the end of the decade that it would threaten to close the newspaper if employees didn't make big concessions. Likewise, when McClatchy Newspapers, one of the best-run quality chains in the country, bought the larger Knight Ridder chain in 2006 for $4.5 billion (spinning off four newspapers it didn't want for $1 billion), the owners were not guided by greed and corruption when they later dramatically cut staff and features at all of its titles. They were guided by an instinct to survive.

You don't have to like the Tribune Co. number-crunchers who put the deal together with Times Mirror—or their demand that profits come before Pulitzer prizes—to see that they thought their deal was going to make the combined company a lot of money. One of the lead Tribune dealmakers, John Madigan, predicted an additional $225 million in cash flow for the new enterprise.

O'Shea is not so blind that he doesn't correctly identify a few greed-heads undermining quality journalism. There would have been no deal if the estimated 170 descendants of the Chandler family, which controlled Times Mirror, hadn't been so eager to sluice profits and capital out of the company. O'Shea reports that Times Mirror paid out $2.1 billion in dividends and distributions to investors and the Chandler heirs between 1995 and 1997, compared with $417 million during the three previous years. The cash cravings of the Chandler heirs, practically none of them Times Mirror employees, made the deal happen. Readers of the Los Angeles Times, the Baltimore Sun, Newsday, the Chicago Tribune, the Orlando Sentinel and the other newspapers that suffered after the deal can hate the Chandlers all they want, but it was their cow to milk, bleed, or slaughter.

As late as 2007, Rupert Murdoch's News Corp. moved in with a $5.6 billion offer for Dow Jones, owner of the Wall Street Journal, when heirs to that company showed a similar desire to cash out. Despite Murdoch's substantial investment in all aspects of the Journal, changes in newspaper economics forced News Corp. to take a $3 billion write-off in his newspaper division 14 months after the purchase.

Not to get overly counterfactual about this "deal from hell," but let's say the Chandlers had stood up for journalism—as have the Grahams, who control the Post; the Sulzbergers, who control the New York Times (and the very much diminished Boston Globe); and even Murdoch, who has spent deeply to improve the Journal. Let's say the deal never happened just before the 40-year financial heyday of newspapers came to a close. Wouldn't the Tribune and Times Mirror newspapers still have had to cut employee perks, staff, bureaus, circulation, and quality to prevail? The answer is obvious.

O'Shea's pocket histories of both Times Mirror and Tribune are succinct, and his reporting on the circulation scandals at Newsday and other newspapers in the last decade is superb. But, alas, he is not much of a writer. When he pokes former Los Angeles Times publisher Mark Willes for expressing himself with clichés like "think outside the box," O'Shea invites readers to catalog his own literary laziness. He writes of "gritty neighborhoods," "finishing touches," a "seasoned veteran," "a bear of a man," a "sympathetic ear," "a taste of their own medicine," a "crown jewel" and more. When he writes that somebody's eyes "twinkle," I found myself wanting to poke mine out.

O'Shea, an experienced reporter and editor, misses the story and writes poorly. If only we could send his terrific assignment back to the rewrite desk for fixing.

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This review originally appeared in the June 26 Washington Postand is reprinted with permission. I wonder what sort of newsman Satan would make. Send your speculations to slate.pressbox@gmail. For a taste of heaven, visit my Twitter feed. (Email may be quoted by name in "The Fray," Slate's readers' forum; in a future article; or elsewhere unless the writer stipulates otherwise. Permanent disclosure: Slate is owned by the Washington Post Co.)

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Jack Shafer was Slate's editor at large. You can follow him on Twitter or email him at Shafer.Reuters@gmail.com.