March 2, 2016

The recent past is prologue for Michael Ferro, the Chicago tech entrepreneur who is the new power at Tribune Publishing.

He will combine the positions of editor and publisher at several of the company’s major dailies, including the Los Angeles Times and Chicago Tribune, it was disclosed Wednesday. It’s exactly what he did with his one major involvement so far, running The Chicago Sun-Times.

There, he promoted Editor Jim Kirk to the role of publisher. Now he’ll take Davan Maharaj and Bruce Dold, editors of the Times and Tribune, respectively, and have them oversee business enterprises considerably more complex and larger than that at The Sun-Times. In each case, he’s moving well-compensated existing publishers to new positions at the company.

And, at the same time, a previously rumored corporate housecleaning is underway.

Michael Rooney, the chief revenue officer since 2014, has left the company, while Denise Warren, a former New York Times executive who became president of digital and CEO of Tribune’s East Coast newspapers last May, has been shown the door, too. The company has struggled with its digital platforms and has modest numbers of digital-only subscribers amid a belated turn to a metered paywall.

Ferro, in his role as non-executive chairman, has acted quickly after gaining a 17 percent interest in Tribune Publishing in February and quickly parting ways with CEO Jack Griffin, who had apparently seen Ferro as a potential ally and needed source of cash in potentially swinging one or more purchases.

Ferro was part of a group that in 2011 bought The Sun-Times, which has struggled for years as the market’s No. 2 daily. It followed the tragic, unexpected death of owner James Tyree, the head of a major investment firm, due to a botched surgery (his wife settled with the hospital for $10 million). Ferro was first among equals of the owners and took to the job with apparent gusto. But he had the same difficulties in overcoming challenges faced by most newspaper publishers. The paper’s digital forays have by its own admission fallen very short of expectations, with an attempt at creating a series of news sites for cities nationwide a failure.

Ferro’s involvement in the purchase stemmed from his board membership at the Chicago News Cooperative, a media nonprofit (that I helped to start) whose principal handiwork proved to be producing local Chicago pages for The New York Times in the first such partnership by the Times.

At one point last year, he took his name off the paper’s masthead and opted for a lower-profile. Now, he’s thrust in an unavoidably higher-profile position, overseeing two of the nation’s most famous papers, in addition to long-time print bastions in Baltimore, Hartford and Orlando, among others. The scrutiny he’ll receive for actions and statements will surely be far more intense.

Ferro, a technology entrepreneur who became the largest shareholder and chairman of Tribune Publishing last month, also announced he was donating his ownership stake in the Chicago Sun-Times to a charitable trust to avoid perceived conflicts of interest.

In Los Angeles, Tim Ryan, a new publisher who had replaced Austin Beutner amid Beutner-Griffin feuding, will now be moved to president of publishing, a position that will apparently oversee the newspapers. He’d come to Los Angeles last year after overseeing the Baltimore Sun and after a career mostly on the operations side at the Chicago Tribune.

Tony Hunter, the Tribune publisher in Chicago, will move to a new position, too. He will be president of national revenue and strategic initiatives. Last year Griffin signed him to a new three-year deal that could pay him as much as $1.8 million a year, with potential bonuses factored in.

The company will apparently stress the melding of the editor and publisher positions as a “content-first” gambit. And while that merely underscores the long-ongoing melding of the journalism and business sides at many media companies, it remains to be seen whether one person can straddle both jobs at enterprises as complicated as The Times and Tribune.

While most media coverage of newspapers’ troubles focus on newsrooms, less attention has been given to what has been a brain drain on the business side for many years. For example, smart and aggressive young sales and marketing personnel have often long ago left for what they deem more up and coming, usually digital companies. Similarly, few of the brightest and most ambitious graduates of business schools see newspapers as a place to ply their trades.

Maharaj and Dold have no prior business experience on a par with overseeing editorial, sales, marketing, circulation, digital and other areas of a major daily. To that extent, Ferro, 49, is trusting gut instincts that have served him fairly well in his previous tech enterprises, including health care imaging firm he sold to IBM last year for $1 billion.

While he has detractors in the Chicago business community, he does have strong supporters, too, especially among some of its most-respected elder statesmen with whom he’s done business.

“The editor at the Tribune before I came in had been involved in business initiatives,” Dold told the Chicago Tribune. “I served with a number of publishers here, including Tony Hunter, and every one of them understood how important our journalism was and how important it was to protect the integrity of that. So that doesn’t change at all, whatever the titles are.”

The changes also displaced some key New York-based executive hires by Jack Griffin, who was ousted as Tribune Publishing CEO last week in favor of Justin Dearborn, the former CEO of Merge Healthcare and a longtime Ferro associate.

The changes were announced hours before the company’s quarterly earnings call and surely were meant to suggest a new energy at a company whose recent performance has been underwhelming. Its stock has dropped sharply. Wall Street greeted the changes with alacrity; Tribune Publishing’s stock was up 12.82 percent Wednesday morning.

In addition, Tribune said it will next month begin to offer print subscribers free unlimited digital access across every Tribune Publishing website. That still begs the question confronting all newspapers: how to produce content people will pay for online in an age when print editions are so obviously imperiled.

The fate of The Sun-Times is inevitably intertwined with Ferro’s new leadership role at Tribune Publishing. When the new owners bought the paper, their strategy included at least the prospect of one day merging the two Chicago papers.

That would unavoidably remain a possibility at some point. They already have business relationship, with one of the Chicago Tribune’s most profitable endeavors being its printing of The Sun-Times.

Ferro has exhibited a penchant to cut costs. But, as he surely knows, that’s relatively easy compared to the harder task of finding news ways to increase revenues.

In addition, he’ll have to decide if it might be in shareholders’ interest to look seriously at selling individual properties. Griffin was averse to such a move. Indeed, it’s partly why he fired Beutner after the Los Angeles publisher broached the notion of a purchase of the Los Angeles paper with billionaire philanthropist Eli Broad.

The sharply declining value of the company’s stock will play a role. It may scare people off, seeing the company’s diminished value. But it may spur a few to wonder if they can pick off long-esteemed local enterprises at a very cheap price.

But they, too, would then be confronted with the limits of cost-cutting and need to invest as one discerns product improvements that will lure a declining base of paying readers.

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New York City native, graduate of Collegiate School, Amherst College and Roosevelt University. Married to Cornelia Grumman, dad of Blair and Eliot. National columnist, U.S.…
James Warren

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