Tim Knight’s first tour of duty at Tribune was as a young executive in the happier times of the late 1990s and early 2000s. He returned in 2017 as president of the local newspaper division and since January has been running the joint as CEO.
When we spoke recently, Knight was not in denial about Tribune’s wild ride at the top management ranks in recent years or about rumors swirling now of a possible merger or takeover.
But he has chosen not to think like a possible short-timer. “I’m focused on what we need to be doing now to be successful in the long run,” Knight said. As a seasoned, stick-to-the-knitting operator, Knight is the antithesis of flamboyant former chairman Michael Ferro. Gone is the much-ridiculed name “tronc” and Ferro’s fuzzy ambition to build out a new international entertainment-oriented digital site.
In an interview, the first to my knowledge Knight has given as CEO, he ticked off progress on a number of familiar priorities:
- By switching over to The Washington Post’s Arc publishing system, Tribune’s papers will have a more stable and mobile-friendly CMS.
- “We signed up for (the American Press Institute’s ) Metrics for News and will be rolling that out in our eight markets” — a system for using data to tailor content to the preferences of local audiences.
- Paid digital-only subscriptions grew to 250,000 by year’s end and are still increasing. I suspect that some heavy discounting is fueling the growth, but Knight said, “We are very balanced on volume and revenue per subscriber.”
- Tribune is on a hiring spree (which is not to say newsroom headcounts are about to soar). “We are looking particularly at millennials … and I think for them we need to get back to the sort of career planning (within the organization) that we did 25 years ago.”
A particularly attractive job opening, Knight said, is for an editor in chief of the Virginia Media Group, who will be “resetting” the merged newsrooms of The Virginian-Pilot and Newport News Daily Press, created when Tribune bought the Pilot in May 2018.
One keeper innovation from the Ferro years has been an early decision in February 2016 to abolish the traditional publisher position at each property and put a top editor in chief in charge. Ad sales are now run by an ad executive, but Knight said that part of the publisher role remains.
“We have found that a certain kind of advertiser — a large regional hospital chain, for instance — wants to meet with the editor and be drawn in” to hearing what’s happening editorially.
When Knight, a corporate lawyer, joined Tribune the first time around, he was one of several lieutenants to Jack Fuller, a Pulitzer-winning editor turned CEO. “Jack was a very smart guy,” Knight recalled. “He saw revenue (robust at the time) being challenged, especially classifieds.”
So Tribune was an early participant in joint ventures like Cars.com and apartments.com (which together formed Classified Ventures) and CareerBuilder. All did well as growth businesses and were later sold for cash to supplement falling profits.
The beginning of the end of print prosperity and orderly digital transition at Tribune was the purchase of the company in 2007 by crusty real estate mogul Sam Zell, a bankruptcy soon after, and Zell’s installation of a management team of raucous “radio guys.”
As that dismal phase ended, Tribune Publishing was spun off, under unfavorable terms from Tribune’s broadcast division. Jack Griffin, a longtime New York publishing executive adept at selling to top-level national advertising clients, came in as CEO. But Griffin lasted only two years.
“For a long time, we had held that having New York, Chicago and Los Angeles markets (a concept from television) was the key to national sales. … But the world is different; that’s not the way marketers buy anymore,” Knight said. Even subtracting out the Los Angeles Times footprint after its sale last year to Dr. Patrick Soon-Shiong, he said, the Tribune Publishing collection has the mass and targeting capabilities to sell contracts at a premium.
And while Knight only three months ago succeeded Ferro’s hand-picked CEO Justin Dearborn, the earlier position allowed him a running start at what his predecessors both described as “playing catch up” in the digital sphere.
Without having a chance to regularly read the news reports of the flagship Chicago Tribune and other papers like the Baltimore Sun and Orlando Sentinel, my impression is that despite painful downsizing they retain strong journalists with muscle memory both for breaking stories and investigations.
Naturally, Knight agreed. “Our newsrooms are still doing killer work.”
That was two weeks ago. The following Monday, Tribune papers won three Pulitzer Prizes: the South Florida Sun-Sentinel for public service; the Capital Gazette, a special citation; and the Los Angeles Times (still part of Tribune when the work was done) for investigative reporting. That was by far the best performance by any chain.
Financially, the company held its fourth quarter 2018 revenue loss to 4.2 percent, thanks to a digital acquisition. Its stock price is even for the year to date.
There is no guarantee that Tribune Publishing is out of the woods as a business or sure to keep its current configuration. But I do believe the laughing stock days are over.
Correction: This story has been updated to correct the year that the Virginian-Pilot was sold.