Soon after Michael Ferro took over the Sun-Times, the paper ran a full-page picture of his son, Trey, throwing out the first pitch at a Cubs game at Wrigley Field. A few pages away, the same edition carried a picture of the entire Ferro family hanging out with the owner of the Cubs behind the scoreboard.
I commented, but was forgiving. “If new-money capitalists snatching up dying newspapers for a song as vanity projects are the industry’s only hope, the new owners’ self-indulgences are a price the papers will have to be willing to pay to survive,” I said.
Leaving his majority interest in the Sun-Times in place behind him, Ferro just moved on to Tribune Publishing, which he now controls. Publishing remains a hazardous business to sink money in—Ferro sank $44 million into Tribune Publishing—but it continues to indulge its proprietors.
A principal tent pole of Tribune Publishing is the LA Times, and for the Times, the Academy Awards are a very big local story. I’ll let media analyst Ken Doctor pick up the tale at this point—he told it on Politico.
The Times had been allocated six passes for entry to the Dolby Theater–essential access to tell the story of the night by the big broadsheet located in America’s entertainment capital—but until the last minute not one of them was allocated to a reporter.
According to several sources in and around the Times, the passes went to the Tribune Publishing’s new brass. Tribune Publishing Chairman Michael Ferro and CEO Justin Dearborn reportedly used the passes, each along with a guest.
The last two were earmarked for publisher Tim Ryan, who was persuaded to do the right thing and gave up his seats after receiving a flabbergasted email from the Times’ film desk.
This e-mail is also worth quoting. It was sent to Ryan and to editor Davan Maharaj. It noted that competing newspapers received far fewer tickets—the New York Times and Hollywood Reporter, for instance, each got two—but passed them on to reporters. With six, the Times had none to spare for the newsroom. The e-mail concluded:
Our reporters do not sit through the show, but rather use this access to gather exclusive quotes on the controversies of the evening in the lobbies and bars, deliver feeds on how the audience is receiving the host and solicit comments from the losers, who are not made available in the press room.
Entertainment coverage is a bedrock of this paper’s identity. To fail to send a single reporter on a year when the Oscars are at the center of a cultural debate over diversity is not only embarrassing, it’s bad journalism. Would the LA Times ever cover a political convention or a sporting event this way?
Please tell us that you will reconsider, and distribute at least one of the Times’ Oscar tickets to a reporter.
The next day Doctor reported that Ferro has ordered a “housecleaning” at Tribune Publishing, and when the dust clears Maharaj—an unpopular editor—is likely to wind up as publisher too. He’d be running not just the Times but also the Tribune Publishing daily in San Diego and also, most likely, the paper the company hopes to buy at auction in Orange County.
Maharaj’s top skill, reports Doctor, is “managing up”—that is, knowing how to please whoever the emperor is in Chicago.