When former greeting card executive Aaron Kushner purchased the Orange County Register and Riverside Press-Enterprise in Southern California a few years ago, he set the media industry spinning due to his bold and often times bewildering plans of action. He added hundreds of reporters, bulked up the print product, and even launched two newspapers (Long Beach Register and Los Angeles Register). Many people in the industry were optimistic about Kushner’s audacious projects, but there were also plenty of naysayers waiting for the other shoe to drop. Unfortunately, it did, and it resulted in layoffs and buyouts, lawsuits, and the closures of both the Long Beach and Los Angeles papers. In the end, Kushner exited the newspaper business.
Now, here we are, a year later, and the industry is abuzz again with another businessman and his decisions when it comes to running newspapers. In February, Chicago tech entrepreneur Michael Ferro became the largest shareholder of Tribune Publishing (owners of papers like the Chicago Tribune and the Los Angeles Times) and also the company’s chairman. Soon after, Jack Griffin, Tribune Publishing CEO, was replaced by Justin Dearborn, who has no past media experience and previously worked as CEO of Merge Healthcare. Griffin had played an instrumental part when Tribune Publishing was spun off from Tribune Co. two years ago. A week later, the company announced the roles of editor and publisher would be combined across its portfolio of newspapers.
Then, came the biggest plot twist: Gannett’s unsolicited offer in April to buy Tribune Publishing. The publisher of USA Today and more than 100 other media properties originally offered $815 million, but when that was rejected, the bid was raised to $864 million. Again, the answer was no.
Tribune Publishing threw everyone for another loop when it was announced in June it would change its name to tronc, Inc. (yes, with a lower case t) and rebrand itself as a “content curation and monetization company.” tronc, which stands for Tribune online content, was quick to become the butt of social media jokes and the new name was mocked by many industry members.
“Far worse than the name and punctuational idiosyncrasies is the direction in which Ferro is pushing the company. The vision calls for perhaps the most concentrated mess of buzzwords that digital publishing has ever seen, and that’s some feat,” said Washington Post media columnist Erik Wemple, who also described the announcement as the “worst press release in the history of journalism.”
In that press release, Ferro said, “Our transformation strategy—which has attracted over $114 million in growth capital—is focused on leveraging artificial intelligence and machine learning to improve the user experience and better monetize our world-class content in order to deliver personalized content to our 60 million monthly users and drive value for all of our stakeholders. Our rebranding to tronc represents the manner in which we will pool our technology and content resources to execute on our strategy.”
While Kushner pushed hard for print, Ferro is pushing even harder for digital. Does that mean his story will have a different ending?
The Next Chapter
The way I see it, this pivot by Tribune Publishing—now tronc—is to throw Gannett off its scent, to tell Gannett, “We don’t need you to save us,” even though the company is reportedly saddled with $350 million worth of debt. The new name and change in direction is meant to make the business sound as unattractive as possible to potential buyers.
But don’t expect Gannett to slink off with its tail between its legs. The Chicago Tribune reported that Gannett’s “offer will remain open while it evaluates ‘various near-term developments,’ including Tribune Publishing’s second-quarter financial results, which are expected to be announced in August.” Let’s not forget Gannett is also thinking business, and if the bid is ever accepted, markets like Los Angeles, Chicago and Orlando are the prizes.
For tronc, it’s moving forward on its new course. Peter Sterne of Politico explained tronc as “basically a souped-up content management system and a dedicated audience engagement team.”As part of their digital strategy, the company is launching troncX, its content curation and monetization engine, which according to a press release, is “able to combine existing assets with new artificial intelligence technology to accelerate digital growth.”
“There’s all these really new, fun features we’re going to be able to do with artificial intelligence and content to make videos faster,” Ferro said in a CNBC interview in June. “Right now, we’re doing a couple hundred videos a day; we think we should be doing 2,000 videos a day.”
These ambitious ideas make me wonder if Ferro is looking for a second chance to make a media company succeed under his watch. Before he came to Tribune Publishing, he was chairman of Wrapports LLC, owner of the Chicago Sun-Times. At the time, media analysts speculated a merger between the two Chicago papers would happen, but Ferro has since donated his stake of Wrapports LLC to charity.
“The biggest mistakes I’ve made at the Sun-Times were not trying certain things, not taking certain risks,” Ferro said in an interview with the Chicago Tribune. “We didn’t have enough capital. We saw so many great things but we couldn’t invest in the technology because our distribution channel was too small. It’s the opposite here. We’re 25 to 30 times the size of the Sun-Times here, the distribution channel. This is an awesome opportunity.”
Perhaps an awesome opportunity to prove he can make tronc work? Ferro is another tech entrepreneur with big newspaper dreams. With his newly-named content company, it’s his way of showing these old school skeptics that it’s technology that will make journalism bigger and better. He’s determined to bring his disruptive ideas into an industry that needs to be rejuvenated, and in his own words, he’s not afraid of failure.
“You’ve got to try a lot of things to make something work. I’m not afraid of failure. I like to fail fast, though,” he told the Chicago Tribune. “I believe you try something that doesn’t work, you move on. You never stop trying. We’re going to fail on a bunch of initiatives.”
So what happens if tronc can’t produce 2,000 videos a day? What if its AI campaign doesn’t take off? Will Ferro and his board announce another name change if things don’t work out? Kushner ended up being a cautionary tale for newspapers and print. Will Ferro end up in the same boat as he steers his “online content” into the future?
As Greg Satell wrote in the Harvard Business Review after tronc released an employee video the day the new name went live: “(What) I find most disturbing about the video isn’t the buzzwords, but how it indicates that the company is failing to address the fundamental questions the company is facing: What is the role of a newspaper business in a digital media environment? How can we use technology to empower our journalists to collaborate more effectively and further our editorial mission?”
All great questions I hope Ferro and his team will find answers for.