Weighing in at the Tribune Pay Scale

There was a bit of an uprising inside the Tribune recently. Some good came out of it. The president of the company learned a lesson in the psychology of newspaper people. After all, they’re his savages–he should know how they tick.

One department after another was summoned to Campbell Hall on the Tribune Tower’s seventh floor to hear exciting news. There’d been a major new extrusion from the corporate brain: “the Chicago Tribune Compensation Program.” At long last, newspaper salaries, heretofore a patchwork of covert extortions and exploitations, were being codified.

Some of these meetings, the ones peopled by, say, senior management or the accounting department, passed placidly enough. But one segment of the work force responded with open derision. This unruly bloc hailed from the editorial offices on the fourth floor.

A reporter at the first briefing for editorial personnel remembers this “kind of industrial-type bouncing music” as a video began the presentation, the camera “zooming in on someone at a computer work board,” a cheery voice proclaiming, “We’re all working together to put out a great product.”

“We were being marinated,” says the reporter.

A slide show followed. Various legends were projected onto the screen, and an earnest young woman from employee relations helpfully read them aloud. This rubbed everyone the wrong way.

Then she took questions. Anne Keegan asked at once, Why is this happening and for whose benefit? For the employees’ benefit, the young woman responded, and went on to say why in language that struck the rumbling horde as prepackaged gibberish.

What does that mean in plain English? said Keegan.

At this point, someone who was there marveled afterward, you could see the hair growing on people’s palms.

As far as anyone could make it out, the Tribune had decided to turn itself into a little civil service, with everyone’s work tidied into grades, job descriptions, and salary ranges. The young woman let it be known that an actual consulting firm, the Hayes Group, had had a hand in the sorry business.

“Get newspaper people in a room and tell them ‘This is for your benefit’ and there’s an almost instinctual sense that maybe it’s not,” says a reporter. “It’s sort of an innate skepticism that rises up like bile.”

No one had any idea who this person addressing them was. She was about eight months pregnant, a condition that earned her no sympathy.

Up went a slide describing grade 35: reporter/writer. Campbell Hall was full of reporter/writers, and now just one question mattered. What’s our salary range?

I don’t know, said the young woman.

(The Tribune’s ridiculous idea was that salary ranges could be kept confidential.)

Make a phone call! someone cried, as the session moved out of control. We’ll wait!

“The place went up for grabs,” an eyewitness now tells us. “It was like buyers in the soybean pit. Everyone was shouting.”

Hewing to her script, the moderator made some remark about career-pathing. With the new grade schedule it would now be plain which way advancement lies. Like a thunderclap, this insight broke over the meeting. Career-pathing! Yes, of course, at long last solid evidence that editor is a shrewder goal than copyboy.

It was nothing specific in the plan itself that sent everyone out the door in an uproar. It was the astonishing experience of being massaged by their own bosses with the familiar one-two stroke of slick PR and stonewalling.

“Simply to think you could get away with that is unbelievable!” says a reporter who was there. “For a group like us! Total iconoclasts! And we’re supposed to take it and smile and applaud politely at the end of a meeting where they’ve stuffed this up our rear end!”

A day or two later, a red-white-and-blue brochure titled “Your Job/Your Salary” was handed out along with slips of paper that told each employee his or her grade and salary range. These figures were swiftly collated, and soon a pillar in the newsroom sported a list of the novice, mid-range, and top salaries each grade commanded.

The column quickly became known as the “wailing wall.” Grade 35 reporters who felt they should be regarded as grade 37 “specialist reporters” wailed. Specialist reporters who wanted to think they were grade 40 columnists wailed. Critics discovered they were two grades below columnists, photographers that they were two grades below reporters. Careerists who thought they’d driven a hard bargain found out they were getting an average journeyman’s wage. Those paid above the scale wondered if they’d ever see another raise.

Word made its way down to the newsroom that Tribune Company president John Madigan was furious at the abuse suffered by his expectant emissary at the fourth floor’s hands. This figured. Who was Madigan but a financier who’d come to the Tribune Company out of Salomon Brothers and Paine Weber–what would he know about journalists? But the following Wednesday, Madigan did a rare thing: he sat in on the weekly meeting of the editorial brass.

Clearly for Madigan’s benefit, editor Jim Squires guided the conversation into a discussion of the newspaper game’s behavioral mechanisms.

Doug Kneeland, associate editor of the editorial page, spoke up. He told Madigan that the Tribune’s pitch had reminded him of the report on estimated Soviet forces that the Pentagon comes up with each year just before asking Congress for a zillion dollars.

Kneeland explained, “It may be a very slick presentation to the people doing it, but newspeople, first of all, are immediately turned off by anything too slick, and also, if you put something on the screen for them to read, they don’t expect someone to read it to them.

“Madigan took the explanations in the spirit intended,” Kneeland tells us. “Maybe he was a little puzzled by the type of people we said we were.”

Which is?

“After all,” says Kneeland, “we’re all crazy anyway. So we tend to be pretty cynical.”

When we reached Madigan, he dismissed the hubbub over the compensation plan as a matter too trivial to talk about. “I’ve had lots of discussion with the editorial department, mostly on the good things they’re doing, and that’s what I hope you would say,” said Madigan.

We said we would. And there, we’ve said it.

Doing the Right Thing

Each month in FineLine, journalists wrestle with the haunting question: did we do wrong?

A naked dentist went berserk on a busy street. The local paper named him in a page-one story. The paper’s city editor writes in FineLine, “Three years later, I still think we did the right thing.”

A reporter lied to gain a job as security guard at Three Mile Island. Can he justify it now? “Yes, it was right,” he concludes.

A newspaper revealed that a fireman who died heroically in the line of duty was drunk at the time. “Newspapers are not in the business of making or breaking heroes, but reporting events as they actually happen,” the editor now decides.

A paper receives a dramatic photo of a lad being pulled from a river. Barely alive when the picture was taken, the boy soon died. “In the end,” the editor will reflect in FineLine, “we are left with the only decision we can make. The photo will run because not to run it is the greater error.”

A reporter alerted to a murder scheme poses as a hit man to learn more and then tells the police. Colleagues ride him. “I will not remain faithful to the false god of objectivity when someone’s life is at stake,” he declares splendidly in FineLine.

If the seat-of-the-pants decisions made in journalism are never wrong, then where’s the need for FineLine, a newsletter intended to examine those decisions?

“Not too many people are going to call us up and say ‘Let me tell you about the terrible boo-boo I just made,'” allowed Barry Bingham. A former Louisville newspaper publisher, Bingham founded FineLine four months ago as a forum for calm reflection on ethical dilemmas.

“We’ve gotten a reasonable amount of copy but a lot of it is not very good,” Bingham said. “A lot of the writing is on ethical issues so unimportant I wouldn’t want to publish it.”

Bingham told us last month that to reach the depth of analysis he was after he might try assigning articles, and his newsletter’s July issue shows signs of that. There’s a spirited piece by Daniel Schorr on rumormongering, a noncommittal survey of reactions to Linda Ellerbee’s Maxwell House commercial, and an equally tepid report on the New York Post’s cheeky decision to print bootlegged answers to the state high school chemistry achievement test.

The media executives that Bingham asks to pay dearly to receive FineLine certainly don’t need it for stories like those. But a piece with the headline “Broken promise” makes us hope that FineLine could become what Bingham wants it to be. A reporter describes promising a mother anonymity in return for full details of her struggle to place her five-year-old adopted daughter, who was retarded and had AIDS, in special education classes. The bargain was kept until the mother took her case to a state hearing officer. Then an assistant managing editor called off the deal. It’s a public hearing, he decided; and besides, he said, this woman’s manipulating us.

Interestingly, the reporter blames herself–for “promising too much”–and the mother–for “asking for too much.” But here, at long last, is someone who doesn’t say the paper’s call was hard but right. “I am still troubled by the newspaper’s decision,” she writes. “There is a special trust between reporter and sources that cannot be violated.”

She no longer works there.