Tribune staffers contemplate an alternate future. Credit: AP Photo/Kiichiro Sato, File

There was a time when the idea of the proud Chicago Tribune in the clutches of a newspaper chain like Gannett would not have horrified the Tribune editorial staff for only one reason—it was incomprehensible.

But that time was before austerity and incompetence dragged the Tribune into an alley and pounded it silly. Now shareholders of Tribune Publishing—which owns the Trib, the LA Times, and nine other dailies— have to decide whether to accept or reject Gannett’s $815 million offer to take over the company. The idea is no longer incomprehensible. As for horrifying—well, that’s a relative term. 

Is Gannett more horrifying than Michael Ferro?

Gannett owns 107 newspapers in the second- and third-tier cities of America, and it created USA Today, which people usually read because they have no choice. I think of the paper as the inevitable complement to the waffles we pour ourselves in Motel 6 dining rooms across America.

Ferro controlled the Sun-Times (and the Reader) until he gave that up in February to buy a controlling interest in Tribune Publishing. He also created Splash, which people don’t read, and which he bought back from the Sun-Times after his move.

“This is a weird place now,” says a friend who’s worked in the Tribune newsroom for a while. “Fully 50 percent of the people here are eager to hold onto a job. They don’t give a fuck who owns the place.”

It’s understandable that Tribune reporters and editors facing these alternate futures would prefer not to think about either one. But some do. “To the older people here, Ferro represents the devil you don’t know,” says my friend, who’s one of them. “His pronouncements of being able to reinvent journalism don’t wash with me.” 

The difference between Ferro and Gannett, in the minds of Tribune staffers who have been around the block, seems to be roughly the difference between Splash and USA Today. Ferro’s a “lightweight,” says my friend. Gannett at least knows what it’s doing. 

“There’s a slight fear that Gannett’s going to take over the Tribune and turn it into a clone of USA Today,” he says. “I think they’ve got to be smarter than that. They’re buying the two biggest papers they’ve ever owned. So I can’t see them—I might be totally wrong—totally revamping the Tribune or LA Times. There could be a great deal of consolidation—that’s what they’re known for. But believe me, there’s a lot of dead weight at this place. If I could save a million dollars in an hour by walking around this place and telling people to get lost, somebody who knows what they’re doing could certainly do that.”

He mused, “You could characterize this staff as beleaguered enough to not get their noses out of joint at this latest ripple at the Tribune. When you’ve had Sam Zell and Randy Michaels and these other jokers running this place and it’s still standing—what could Gannett do? What the fuck could they do?”