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Media Bias

Blogs Tell the Story Behind Sun Buyouts and Changes

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Video stills of Tribune Co. CEO Sam Zell at the Tribune-owned Orlando Sentinel

By Martin L. Johnson | Posted 9/3/2008

The redesigned Baltimore Sun is more than just a pretty face. Even casual readers of the paper can't help but notice that sections have been cut and some of the paper's familiar bylines no longer appear.

But behind the scenes, journalists at the Sun and other papers owned by the Tribune Co. have launched an angry (if only online) revolt against staff layoffs, management decisions, and what they see as a wholesale dismantling of the Chicago-based company's newspapers.

"The public should be aware of these changes," says Gus Sentementes, general assignment reporter at the Sun and a newsroom mobilizer for the Washington-Baltimore Newspaper Guild, the union that represents the Sun's writers and editors. In June, the guild started News of the Sun (newsofthesun.blogspot.com), a blog that addresses issues facing the Sun, including staff layoffs and buyouts, the paper's redesign, and corporate decisions that impact the paper. News of the Sun joined a half-dozen other blogs committed to sharing information about the cutbacks taking place at other papers owned by the Tribune Co. (Disclosure: I have freelanced for the New York and Baltimore editions of Metromix, an entertainment site owned by Tribune.)

As a contributor to the blog, Sentementes has helped turn office gossip into a broader conversation about the changes at Tribune-owned newspapers that have taken place under the guidance of the company's new owner, Sam Zell, who took control of Tribune last December. Zell, a 66-year-old real-estate investor who delights in off-color humor and describes himself as a maverick, took on considerable debt to take the company private in a complex scheme that left the company technically employee-owned. Tribune employees argue that Zell purchased the Tribune Co. to take advantage of the company's television and internet properties, and is reducing spending on its newspapers in order to put the company back in the black.

The most prominent anti-Zell blog, Tell Zell (www.tellzell.com), is published by a journalist working at the Los Angeles Times who goes by the pen name the Retch. He says he remains anonymous because, unlike at the Sun, Times reporters are not unionized, and thus are more vulnerable to firing. The Retch says he started the blog specifically to provide an outlet for Tribune employees to criticize the company's new owner.

"Zell shows nothing but contempt for his employees and his mission," the Retch says in an e-mail interview. "He clearly cares nothing about journalism itself. His `solutions' are not really solutions, simply evidence of ignorance. So far, Zell has proposed redesigning various newspapers, firing staffers, shrinking news holes, and focusing on local news. These are all solutions that have been tried by the industry for the past 20 years. None has worked to turn around circulation declines. The only thing Zell is doing which is new is that he is committing suicide by diminishing his product far more quickly and deeply than other media owners."

While Tell Zell has a sharper tone than News of the Sun (and other Tribune-related newspaper blogs), both mix sober news of layoffs with satirical attacks on Zell and the company's management staff--particularly Lee Abrams, former chief creative officer at XM Satellite Radio who was hired by Zell in March to be the chief innovation officer at Tribune--an amorphous position that has earned much derision on the anti-Zell blogs. Abrams regularly sends out rambling, typo-filled e-mails about his vision for the future of the industry, and the blogs are quick to post and mock his suggestions, such this observation in May: "Six weeks into this, I can't help thinking that we have 70 years of catching up to do . . . and we gotta do it."

Sentementes says that blogs like News of the Sun and Tell Zell reach a broad community of journalists and readers concerned about the future of the Sun and other Tribune papers.

"Company officials may be annoyed that there are these blogs out there, but you want people to care about The Baltimore Sun," Sentementes says. "What's worse is if nobody cares. If anything, we're engaging people in that conversation, I don't think it's a bad thing. There are many of us that are very proud to speak out. We're not just going to gripe and post silly photos. We're genuinely concerned about the paper."

Since the Sun is unionized (one of only two Tribune papers with unionized editorial staff), contributors to News of the Sun have also been able to post materials that help staff at other papers anticipate layoffs and negotiate buyouts. For example, the blog posted the terms of the buyout agreement offered to Sun writers and editors, as well as a PowerPoint presentation detailing the paper's redesign, the principles of which may eventually be applied across all the Tribune papers.

The blogs have also reached the motley crew of people concerned with the future of journalism in general, not just at Tribune. Recently, News of the Sun posted an interview with Michael P. Smith, executive director of the Media Management Center at Northwestern University, who said, "I don't think [Zell] gets journalism."

Greener Pastures?

Where does a recently unemployed Sun reporter go to look for work? If you're Lynn Anderson, you go to France. Anderson, who just five months ago became the co-chair of the Sun's chapter of the Washington-Baltimore Newspaper Guild, took a buyout and is now working at the Hatcher Group, a Bethesda-based public-relations firm that works with nonprofit organizations. Anderson says she is getting married and will soon move to France because that's where her fiancé is from. She says she wasn't happy about leaving journalism, but she felt it was her only realistic option.

"If the Sun was the paper it was when I came to it nine years ago, I would have probably encouraged my fiancé, who I met in Baltimore, to come back here and get a job here," she says. "You just have to be realistic about your future. There's just more [layoffs] to come. It's not a rosy future."

Chris Emery, formerly a science reporter for the Sun, also recently took a buyout. He says that when he started working at the paper two years ago he thought he had started his career. He left the paper for a job as a staff writer at the school of engineering at Princeton University.

"I thought I finally found my calling, and then the industry started to tank," he says. "The Baltimore Sun started looking like a very shaky place to work. The rug got pulled out from under from me."

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