New York Times Looks at Craziness Inside Tribune Company; Sam Zell’s CEO Says ‘Ignore the Noise’

This morning David Carr takes a deep look at what has been happening inside the Tribune Company since Sam Zell took over at the end of 2007.

There has not only been cost-cutting and declining quality at the company’s newspapers (at The Chicago Tribune and The Los Angeles Times‘ circulation is down in 9.8 and 14.7 percent respectively in the first half of 2010), there has also been a culture of bar-room unprofessionalism institued across the company by former executives from the radio business installed by Mr. Zell. Randy Michaels, a former shock jock who Mr. Zell named CEO, amended the company’s employee handbook, as far as we can tell, to loosen the definition of harassment in the company’s offices.

Here are some anecdotes from Mr. Carr’s 4,000-word piece.

Meet Mr. Michaels:

After Mr. Michaels arrived, according to two people at the bar that night, he sat down and said, “watch this,” and offered the waitress $100 to show him her breasts. The group sat dumbfounded.

Poker party in the Tribune “shrine”:

In June 2009, a party for management was held in the former office of Col. Robert R. McCormick, the newspaper baron and grandson of the founder, on the 24th floor of the Tribune Tower. Smoke detectors were covered up and poker tables were brought in.

Sex talk in the workplace:

A woman who used to work at the Tribune Company in a senior position, but did not want to be identified because she now worked at another media company in Chicago, said that Mr. Michaels and Marc Chase, who was brought in to run Tribune Interactive, had a loud conversation on an open balcony above a work area about the sexual suitability of various employees.

“The conversation just wafted down on all of the people who were sitting there.” She also said that she was present at a meeting where a female executive jovially offered to bring in her assistant to perform a sexual act on someone in a meeting who seemed to be in a bad mood.

Executives who have no idea about the newspaper business:

Mr. Abrams, who describes himself as an “economic dunce,” was made Tribune’s chief innovation officer in March 2008. In his new role, he peppered the staff with stream-of-consciousness memos, some of which went on for 5,000 typo-ridden, idiosyncratic words that left some amused and many bewildered.

“Rock n Roll musically is behind us. NEWS & INFORMATION IS THE NEW ROCK N ROLL,” he wrote in one memo, sent in 2008. He expressed surprise that The Los Angeles Times reporters covering the war in Iraq were actually there.

To get ahead of The Times article, late last night Mr. Michaels sent out an email to the company’s staff saying that Mr. Carr’s story was predicated on two-year-old rumors spread by an “ex-Chicago Tribune employee who is now a contributing writer to the New York Times.” Mr. Michaels also accused Mr. Carr of trying to influence decisions about Tribune Company’s managment that are emerging at the end of its Chapter 11 bankruptcy filing.

“Mr. Carr has made clear that he is digging up these old allegations because he believes that decisions about the company’s management are about to be made, and he wants to influence those decisions,” Mr. Michaels wrote. He also defended the company’s “fun, non-linear creative environment.”

“Ignore the noise,” he added. “Treat each other with respect. Have fun, and let’s go create the future.”

At Flagging Tribune, Tales of a Bankrupt Culture [NYT]

New York Times Looks at Craziness Inside Tribune Company; Sam Zell’s CEO Says ‘Ignore the Noise’