The age of denial is pretty much in the past at American newspapers. With Rupert Murdoch, who’s 77, now predicting he’ll outlive the print press has another 20 years or so and Steve Balmer, CEO of Microsoft, giving it maybe ten, the  scriveners who populate the nation’s despondent newsrooms are willing to concede that — in the words of industry analyst Ken Doctor“It’s the end of the world as we know it.”

All those scriveners — the ones who know they don’t know enough to negotiate a path from this world to the next on their own — ask at this point is that they be led forward by people who do. Which is why it’s so troubling to the hundreds of journalists at the Tribune Company when their new leader sounds like a nincompoop.

COO Randy Michaels, whose background’s in radio, and not radio of any distinction, held a conference call with investors and media reporters on June 5 and made two striking statements. The first was that the company intended to shrink the news hole at its papers to bring the news-content-to-ads ratio to 50-50 (industry-wide it’s usually closer to 60-40). The second was that output as measured in column inches would weigh heavily in the decisions about which staff to boot. Michaels said the average journalist produces about 51 pages a year at the Tribune Company’s LA Times, about 300 pages a year at its Hartford Courant. “If you work hard and produce a lot for us, everything is great,” said Michaels.

The following observations about the news-ad ratio owe a big debt to Doctor, who’s just addressed the subject on an Editor & Publisher podcast and in his own blog. A lot of newspaper advertisers already have one foot out the door, and here’s Michaels proposing to cheapen the environment in which their ads run. Big advertisers like the visual dignity of ads that stand alone on a page surrounded by important news. Reduce the news and you wind up with the cheesy sight of ads surrounded by other ads. And although newspapers have trained their big advertisers over the decades to think of Section A as the place to be  — the section with tony national and international news — that’s the news hole in greatest danger of being shrunk. It’s news produced by high-paid, underproductive (by Michaels’s way of thinking) veterans who can be cleared out for an AP digest. 

In short, manipulating the news-ad ratio is a much trickier business than Michaels probably thinks it is. Has he asked the Tribune‘s advertisers if they want to be in a paper with less news?

As for staff productivity, measuring it by column inches per journalist is inane, but I’m guessing the Tribune Company survey amounts to Michaels pulling numbers out of his ass. (I made a call to the Tribune asking how Michaels got them and was told the info was proprietary. Why should it be? — pollsters are obliged to reveal how they conduct their polls.) There are more than 200 journalists in the Courant newsroom. If each produced 300 pages a year, the average size of a daily Courant would be something like 164 pages. (If Michaels means full pages of edit, then the advertising pages would make the paper far bigger.) The Courant doesn’t average 164 pages or anything close to it. It’s probably more like 70.

Since last December, when Sam Zell took it over, the Tribune Company has faced almost $13 billion in debt and a business environment worse than Zell apparently ever imagined. He’s already had to sell off Newsday, one of the company’s healthiest properties, just to service the debt. But while Zell, who personally put up just $315 million, runs the show, the stock is held by an employee stock ownership plan (ESOP). The employees Zell enjoys addressing as his “partners” have a huge equity interest in the fate of the company. So one way to think of Michaels’s initiatives is that a hired hand showed up one day talking big about getting rid of the people he works for, people with no say in the matter.

If you’re interested in the audio, Charles Madigan and I discussed all this this morning on WBEZ.

FOOTNOTE: When I calculated above that the Hartford Courant would average some 164 pages an issue if what Randy Michaels said about its staff’s productivity was true,  I was supposing that all the news in the paper was staff generated. Of course, that’s ridiculous. Add wire copy and copy from other Tribune Company papers, plus comics and other syndicated features, and we’re surely looking at another 20-30 pages.