Recent life at the Los Angeles Times suggests the strained plot lines found in cliché-filled grade-B melodramas sometimes covered by its TV critic, Mary McNamara.
In a single year, the newsroom has seen:
- The publisher bounced amid feuding with the company.
- The company CEO himself then ousted shortly after inviting a tech mogul to buy a chunk of the operation.
- A big purchase thwarted by government lawyers.
- A hostile takeover of the company spurned by the tech mogul.
- The tech mogul inviting a doctor-turned-healthcare Croesus to help save him with an even bigger investment.
- Lots of talk by the hyperkinetic new boss of artificial intelligence and music coverage in Nigeria, bolstering the company's editorial brands.
- The stock price fluctuating as at least two major shareholders protest rejection of the takeover.
There have been no threats of murder, backstabbing White House intrigue, extramarital dalliances or cameos from Hollywood stars. Still, you'd think it would all elicit sufficient anxiety to justify a partnership with Pfizer Inc. for a cut-rate newsroom deal on the antidepressant Zoloft.
But apparently not.
How does Mark Barabak, a fine and veteran political reporter, feel about all the tumult?
"I write stories and figure the rest will sort itself out."
It may be a smart, practical way to emotionally make virtue out of necessity. After all, corporate tranquility is not synonymous with the flagship of Tribune Publishing.
Like all big papers, the onetime center of everything Los Angeles is no longer really king of the local hill amid media fragmentation. It's not even the dominant source for news about its key industry, Hollywood. But it remains an important player doing fine work, even if not quite as often as when it was printing money and had far greater resources to cover the nation and world.
Or, of course, before the internet creamed a somnolent industry where too many felt that they were experiencing another temporary down cycle before their monopolistic money machines revived.
And if you want metrics on seeming institutional insecurity consider this: By my count, since the former Tribune Company bought the then-Times Mirror Company in 2000, the newspaper has had seven publishers and six editors. Yup. Count the publishers and editors who were on duty when Tribune arrived and it's a total of 14.
The top newsroom and business executives: Downing, Puerner, Johnson, Hiller, Hartenstein, Beutner, Ryan, Maharaj, Parks, Carroll, Baquet, O'Shea, Stanton and Maharaj (Davan Maharaj now doing double-duty as publisher-editor in what constitutes either brilliant synergy or contorted salary-saving). It was only slightly better than, say, the Lakers, who've experienced nine coaches during the period: Jackson, Tomjanovich, Hamblen, Jackson (again), Brown, Bickerstaff, D'Antoni, Scott and Walton.
No matter how loyal or talented, longevity is not a hallmark of the corporate ranks at the newspaper.
Then you can throw in lots of internal corporate feuding along the way, which occasionally made Los Angeles seem like the renegade, screw-you outpost of a Chicago-based company. To Los Angeles, Chicago represented cost-cutting Midwest neophytes. To Chicago, Los Angeles was a textbook example of smug and inefficient journalists run amok.
Now there's the problematic coming of Michael Ferro, a Chicago tech mogul of big ambitions, modest media experience who possesses a solid track record both of making his investors money and a sincere belief he can largely save an entire industry. As of this week he's aided by Dr. Patrick Soon-Shiong, a multi-billionaire medical entrepreneur, who offers the vision of a device pointed at the pictures in your newspaper that allows those images to talk to you.
Yes, point, click and hear more Donald Trump. Or perhaps the mayor. Or Magic Johnson. Or a striking janitor. Maybe somebody from Charles Schwab telling you to get out of newspaper stocks. Who knows?
In talking to newspaper rank-and-file (most of whom took a pass on being identified), there's the sense of wartime focus. It's akin to those serving us in Iraq and Afghanistan, who don't spend a lot of time mulling foreign policy implications of the larger endeavors.
No, they just focus on getting through the day without getting killed.
In this case, it's a matter of putting out a newspaper. In the digital age, it means doing lots more work for about the same pay as before and desperately hoping that a position or two in the department gets filled so you can get home before 9 p.m. many nights.
Everybody with whom I spoke hasn't spent much time mulling Ferro's arrival. He strikes a few as an individual of high energy with lots of ideas, many of them probably crazy, as several said flatly. But, as they focus on what they're doing on a given day, they don't dismiss him out of hand.
"I've been here 26 years, so I've seen everything," says McNamara, the TV critic.
She doesn't have any real views on the Tribune Publishing decision to spurn Gannett. Others said Gannett seems a double-edge sword: it knows newspapers better than Ferro and his new doctor investor but hasn't traditionally exhibited very high ambitions for its journalism at its mostly small- and mid-sized papers.
When McNamara started at the paper, any even slight movement in the management ranks "caused everybody to stop working for two days." Now the view is sort of a world-weary, "whatever!"
Thus, Thursday's word that Tribune Publishing CEO Justin Dearborn, formerly a lawyer lieutenant of Ferro at a health care software firm, will move to L.A. probably won't move anybody's needle. A few might only wonder what the newsroom itself might do with the $262,000 in relocation expenses the company board has approved for him. It might resonate more at the Chicago Tribune, the original source of the company's sustained success over many decades, leaving no doubt that it's now very much the Second City for the company.
McNamara recalls lots of pep talks over the years amid the tumult, urging her and colleagues just to keep on keeping on with their work. "And, given what the paper has been through, with the uncertainty and shifting focus, I look at what we've done and it's pretty miraculous, given all the distractions and diminishment of staff."
"It's amazing that we continue to do great work, won two Pulitzers last year, do important stories and cover our beats," McNamara said.
"We are exhausted," she said. "But as far as what all this means, it's, 'Whatever! Will they hire more people?'"
As she surveys the occasional corporate soap opera above her pay grade, she concludes simply, "We do great work, have great people and work hard. There's not even time to give people credit. Everybody is laying down tracks. It's amazing we haven't gone off the tracks."