A view from Chicago: ‘Sun’ needs ‘oomph’

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By: Joe Strupp

As The Sun in Baltimore braces for a future that will likely mean tighter budgets and a new way of doing business, Tribune Publishing President Jack Fuller tells staffers not to panic. But the veteran newspaper executive says things will have to change. “We’re still coming out of a pretty miserable recession, and we’d better have better financial performance out of our newspapers,” Fuller tells E&P. “We need to get our revenue back up.”

When asked about the Sun, Fuller stressed that it was not the company’s intention to hurt the paper’s editorial value, but added, “It has been one of the underperformers in the Times Mirror Group. It has had some issues that we have been able to deal with, in the guild contract.”

More management controls will likely come into play in Baltimore, indicating that pressure on Publisher Denise Palmer and others to improve revenue is not likely to subside. “It has to have better financial performance than it has had in the past seven or eight years,” he says. “It needs more oomph.”

Fuller claims Tribune Co. has not been guiding Palmer’s efforts in the recent firing of longtime editor William Marimow or last year’s bitter guild contract battle. “You can’t assume that was anything but a local reaction to a local situation,” Fuller says.

The publishing exec was quick to defend the Sun’s decision to prepare other Tribune Co. employees as replacement workers if the guild had struck, criticizing those who would call them scabs. “I resent that phrase,” he says. “Someone from within the company who goes out to keep the paper publishing is not a scab. The commitment to continue publishing a newspaper I consider a priority part of my job, whether the obstacle is a potential strike, a hurricane, or anthrax.”

He also says editorial employees need to realize that a newspaper as a whole must operate in a financially successful way. “No one likes changes and those who like it least are those in the editorial department, many of whom have seen bad changes in other places,” Fuller says. “They have a mission that is unrelated to the overall mission of the newspaper.”

When it comes to belt-tightening, he believes most budget reductions can be done outside of the newsroom. “It is a myth that the key to economic performance in a newspaper is in the editorial department,” he observes. “Most cost structure exists outside the editorial department. It is an incredibly narrow-minded focus to think that improved financial performance means screwing up journalism.”

It is Fuller’s view that the Sun and the other former Times Mirror papers, which Tribune acquired in 2000, are adjusting to a new culture. A Tribune way of doing business, which some at the Sun have been reluctant to embrace, is a more shared approach. Fuller says: “I harp on common business practices.”

Overall, Fuller does not see a letup in the financial restrictions, but he also vows to respond to them in a broad-based manner. “I think the pressures are going to continue and we have to be smart about attracting readers,” he says. “The secret sauce of financial performance is not one thing. It is many ingredients, optimizing on many, many things.”

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