Thursday, August 27, 2009

A comparison of the closing of the Rocky Mountain News with the closing of the Chicago Tribune's suburban Tribs

The following is by John Rebchook, longtime real estate editor of the Rocky Mountain News. He is now blogging at insiderealestatenews.com. He sent me this in response to my survey of Rocky employees six months after the closing of the paper. My final question was: Do you have any comments you'd like to share about your experience post-Rocky Mountain News? To read other responses, click here.

Of the five papers I worked for during the past 30 years, four of them have gone out of business.

Besides the Rocky, I was only working at one other paper during its death knell.

Twenty seven years ago, I was a reporter for the Suburban Trib, a tabloid insert into the Chicago Tribune. It was owned lock, stock and barrel by the Tribune, but we were autonomous, with our own staff, editors, and even our own printing press.

Employees at the Little Trib, as I liked to call it (because it irked the editors), were paid a fraction of those working in what we called “The Tower,” in downtown Chicago.

When I compare the way E.W. Scripps - the parent of the Rocky - handled the closing of its flagship paper with the way the Tribune company began to shut down the Suburban Trib, it is like a contrast of good and evil.

First, E.W. Scripps gave us several months of warning that the Rocky could close.

By contrast, at the Suburban Trib we arrived to work on a bright spring morning in 1982 and we were broad-sided with the news that the majority of us would lose our jobs that day. We learned about the firings not from management, but from a fellow reporter, whose father had a close business relationship with top executives at the Chicago Tribune. Also, the Suburban Trib was closed before the WARN, or Worker Adjustment and Retraining Notification Act, was enacted, which requires employers to give advanced notice of large, mass layoffs.

The Tribune hired goons – guys with fat bellies, open shirts and gold chains – to make sure we didn't filch any of the crappy typewriters in the newsroom.

Days before the Little Trib closed, we were asked to turn in current overtime. My editor, who did not know what was in store for us, told me they could never pay me for all my overtime, but he would let me take comp time whenever I liked. I had no idea of how much free time I was about to get.

As I was waiting for the ax to fall, I went into the morgue to get some of the original copies of my articles. My immediate supervisor told me that was company property and I had no right to them. I pointed out that under our library system, there were three copies of every story. He allowed me to take the originals, but he said he was sure the Tribune would allow people to return to make copies. It did not. The Tribune decided having former Suburban Trib employees return would be “disruptive” to the handful of people they kept.

When we were handed our walking papers, we were told that the Suburban Trib was profitable, and it was not being closed for economic reasons.

Rather, the Tribune was giving up on the zoned model, and going forward would incorporate suburban coverage in the main paper. Back in the early 1980s, when this occurred, the Tribune was privately held, so I have no idea if they were telling the truth about whether the Suburban Trib was making money. I will say the former, cold-blooded executives at the Tribune make Sam Zell look like Mother Teresa.

The Tribune sold our building in Hinsdale, Ill., to a developer, who razed it for a strip center, I'm told. They sold the presses that printed the Little Trib to another suburban Chicago newspaper.

At the time, my friend Samuel G. Freedman, now an author and professor at Columbia University, gave me some sage advice. I'm paraphrasing, but he said “give your loyalty to people, not to companies,” because companies don't care about you. And they don't deserve it.

After my experience at the Little Trib, I harbored no naive expectation that corporations are run by some caring, grandfatherly types. They're run by bean counters. And that's OK.

And frankly, I've long-thought that Dean Singleton was smarter than anyone at Scripps. And more passionate about the newspaper racket (I hesitate to call it a business, these days).

I remember covering the opening of our new building, and thinking that the Scripps' executives might as well be here for the opening of a new Wal-Mart or King Soopers. Singleton seemed to really be speaking from the heart. Former Gov. Bill Owens, for that matter, spoke far more eloquently about the importance of newspapers – especially the Rocky Mountain News – than the suits from Scripps.

If you look at the meteoric rise in the Scripps' stock price (it's up 1,029.85 percent from its 52-week low, as I write this), one can argue Scripps made the right move by closing us, from a purely financial point of view.

But if Scripps had ripped out the page on closing a paper from the former reptilian-like executives at the Chicago Tribune, things could have been far worse.

36 comments:

  1. Great American tale.
    I've worked in newsrooms since the mid-80s until I left last month on my own terms.
    I can't remember any time when things felt flush. The layoffs and closings merely punctuate long periods of downsizing, job-freezing, beat-collapsing, coverage-shrinking. What a biz.

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