How Not to Run a Newspaper, or Anything Else

The fall of the Chicago Tribune, as documented by David Carr in the New York Times, is a must read. It’s basically a story of some hyper-aggressive hot shots with money who bought the Chicago Tribune company. And then they ran the Trib into the ground, in part because they had absolutely no understanding, or even appreciation, of the news business, and they made horrible decisions. An average sixth grader could have done no worse.

And as you read it, you might think, how did assholes get to be in charge of everything?

You really don’t have to have worked in newspapers to have experienced something like this. The Trib experience was a bit extreme, but I suspect just about everyone who has worked for a large corporation, or even smaller companies, for at least a decade has experienced being managed by a bullying, incompetent fool.

Part of the problem is that a genius for self-promotion and elbowing one’s way to the top is not necessarily accompanied by any other kind of intelligence. You see this over and over again in small organizations and committees, where the most assertive and self-assured person will end up being the leader, regardless of other experience or “smarts.”

You see this especially if you’re in departments such as production, manufacturing or engineering. The people making decisions about how you do your job usually have no clue what you do. They came up through the ranks of finance and marketing, careers that reward hubris and hyper-aggression, but not necessarily competence. They know how to make deals, but they have no clue how to make products. And, of course, they have no interest in the opinions of the people who do know how to make products.

Often the company’s actual product is an afterthought to the big shots, as it clearly was to the neanderthals who took over the Tribune. They had absolutely no appreciation for the art of newsgathering and reporting, nor did it seem to dawn on them that people buy newspapers to read the news.

Mr. Abrams, who describes himself as an “economic dunce,” was made Tribune’s chief innovation officer in March 2008. In his new role, he peppered the staff with stream-of-consciousness memos, some of which went on for 5,000 typo-ridden, idiosyncratic words that left some amused and many bewildered.

“Rock n Roll musically is behind us. NEWS & INFORMATION IS THE NEW ROCK N ROLL,” he wrote in one memo, sent in 2008. He expressed surprise that The Los Angeles Times reporters covering the war in Iraq were actually there.

The other thing that strikes me about this article is the degree to which so many people are intimidated by The System into silence. Time and time again we read,

… said one of the Tribune executives present, who declined to be identified because he had left the company and did not want to be quoted criticizing a former employer

A woman who used to work at the Tribune Company in a senior position, but did not want to be identified because she now worked at another media company in Chicago, said …

Staff members who had concerns did not have many options, given the state of the media business in Chicago, the woman said. “Not many people could afford to leave. The people who could leave, did. But it was not in my best interest to have my name connected to an E.E.O.C. suit,” she said, referring to the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. (Indeed, there are no current E.E.O.C. complaints against the Tribune Company.)

A person who worked in security at the time confirmed to The New York Times that a security guard reported seeing the incident. That person declined to be identified because of the sensitivity of the issue.

Not everyone quoted was off the record, but this gives you a sense of how little freedom people have sometimes. Not that you’d ever get a libertarian to admit private business can oppress its employees.