By: Mark Fitzgerald
From Col. Robert R. McCormick in the Roaring Twenties to John W. Madigan in the Digital Nineties, every Tribune Co. CEO of the modern era has first spent time as publisher of the Chicago Tribune. Last week, Dennis J. FitzSimons broke the mold.
Twenty years after he came to Tribune as sales director of its WGN-TV superstation in Chicago, FitzSimons, 51, was promoted from president and chief operating officer to succeed Madigan and become the first CEO from the media giant’s broadcast side. He is also a virtual lock to become its chairman: Madigan, 65, announced he will retire Dec. 31 of next year.
Under Madigan, Tribune was transformed from a newspaper company that owned some broadcast properties and the Chicago Cubs into an aggressive multimedia player, capped by the world’s greatest newspaper deal, the $8-billion acquisition of the Times Mirror Co., including the Los Angeles Times, Newsday in Melville, N.Y., The Sun in Baltimore, and six other dailies.
As Tribune grew to become the third-largest newspaper company, it also became, on FitzSimons’ watch, the nation’s fifth-largest broadcast TV group. Before his tenure as president of Tribune Broadcasting Co., the company had just six TV stations. Now, it has 24.
Yet, FitzSimons seems to have slipped smoothly into his newspaper responsibilities. “If you saw him at our board meetings, you wouldn’t know he hadn’t been in the newspaper business forever,” said William Dean Singleton, the MediaNews Group Inc. CEO who is also chairman of the Newspaper Association of America. “Dennis has an extremely solid understanding of the newspaper business, even though his background is in television, and he probably is one of our most knowledgeable board members in terms of convergence.”
Though convergence has lost a lot of its cachet lately, FitzSimons said it’s a fact of life in a consolidating media business. “We’re all doing the same thing: trying to reaggregate audience share in a fragmenting universe … and anything we can do in our multiple media in terms of cross-promoting, cross-selling, cross-advertising will give us an advantage,” he told E&P Thursday.
A key convergence initiative launched under FitzSimons is Tribune Media Net, the multimedia national advertising sales organization. “We’re pleased with Media Net,” he said. “It did $34 million in business last year [and] will do $55 million to $60 million this year, and we’re looking at $70 million-plus next year.”
Though FitzSimons has never been a publisher, he was a decision-maker in the launch of two newspapers just this year: El Sentinel, the Spanish-language weekly newspaper published by the Orlando (Fla.) Sentinel, and — with far more ballyhoo in the industry — the Chicago Tribune‘s youth-oriented daily tabloid RedEye. His experience in helping create the young-skewing WB broadcast TV network — in which Tribune has a 22.5% stake — was useful in evaluating RedEye‘s prospects, FitzSimons said: “We learned with the WB that this is a demographic that advertisers want to reach. We found out on the print side that advertisers are really enthusiastic about the effort we’re making to reach that demo.”
One challenge FitzSimons will face in his new role relates to Tribune’s fight against a $551.5-million tax bill for transactions that took place at Times Mirror two years before Tribune bought the L.A.-based company. The Internal Revenue Service in August decided Times Mirror improperly treated as tax-free two transactions that, in 1998, spun off legal publisher Matthew Bender & Co. Inc. and medical publisher Mosby Inc.
Last month, Tribune asked the U.S. Tax Court in Washington to overturn that IRS determination. No trial date has been set. The IRS, which does not comment on cases affecting individual taxpayers, has until Jan. 8 to reply.