Lucky is the suit, empty or otherwise, whose downfall inspires somebody to reach for Shakespeare. Jack Griffin, the ousted CEO of Tribune Publishing, was just shown that kindness. “This is almost Shakespearean,” says the “savvy industry observer” quoted in media writer Ken Doctor’s account of Griffin’s downfall. “The CEO brings in a new shareholder as his ‘partner’ and his ally’s first move is to kick him out. Act One is Romeo and Juliet and Act Two is Julius Caesar.”
Or possibly both acts are Othello. Or King Lear. Trust repaid with betrayal! If a grandiose notion of his victimization gives Griffin solace, he’s welcome to it.
It was just three weeks ago that Griffin announced that Michael Ferro, already the majority investor in the Sun-Times (and Reader), was paying some $44 million to buy the largest single interest in Tribune Publishing. Other shareholders had voluntarily diminished their own stakes so Ferro could buy in, and Griffin announced the deal with the misbegotten enthusiasm of Lear divvying up his kingdom. “This is a vote of confidence in our strategy and gives us further capacity to accelerate it,” Griffin said. Ferro “brings vision and energy and commitment and capital. He’s a tremendous admirer of our brands at Tribune—our premium journalism, our content—so it’s a winning combination for the company.”
Ferro is, by everyone’s description, a big-picture guy. Would any big-picture guy with a “vision” spend $44 million and then silently defer to an existing “strategy,” as carried out by someone running a company whose share price was $24.50 when it split from the Tribune Company two years ago and today is a little above $7?
Robert Channick’s story in Wednesday’s Tribune points to what Ferro’s big picture is. As he told Tribune Publishing employees when he bought into the company, “He wants to use ‘big data and artificial intelligence’ to get Tribune Publishing to tap into the billions of dollars Google, Facebook and other Internet giants are making off of its content.”
Overseeing the Sun-Times, where he’s now a silent partner, Ferro experimented with slicing and dicing content into slick new packages—Grid, Splash—and also with skimming off other people’s content for his Sun-Times Network. None of these experiments worked particularly well, but presumably he learned a thing or two. What a big-picture guy needs is a reliable Number Two to sweat the details, and Griffin’s successor is Justin Dearborn, who has no experience with newspapers but has worked off and on at Ferro’s side since 1997.
Ferro has called the LA Times the “crown jewel” of Tribune Publishing’s nine newspapers, and if so, that was all the more reason to make a change. Contempt for Chicago permeates the Times and its partisans, as can be seen in this blog, laobserved.com, which calls Griffin’s ouster a “putsch masterminded by . . . the largest shareholder of the screwed up Chicago company that owns” the Times. Griffin was the gauleiter who last year axed the Times‘s publisher, Austin Beutner, for sketchy reasons in which perceptions of disloyalty seemed central—Beutner and local Eli Broad had been talking about decolonizing the Times by buying it away from Chicago.
Broad and two former mayors were among the prominent Angelenos who signed a letter of protest.
“Beutner is still hanging around, so there’s still hope for a LA-based solution to LAT’s malaise,” a savvy industry observer of my own e-mailed me. “Otherwise, no news is good news.” But maybe, he speculated, Ferro will colonize the colonizer “by LATzing the Tribune. Bringing editorial talent from here and injecting it at top of food chain there. Couldn’t hurt. The [Tribune] already depends mightily on the LAT bureaus and foreign report. A new vision on local coverage might be welcome.”
That new vision would get the coldest welcome in Tribune Tower I can imagine. But it could win Ferro fans on the coast.