Tribune’s FitzSimons Speaks Out on Black Scandal

By: Mark Fitzgerald

Tribune Co. President and CEO Dennis FitzSimons said Monday he is not worried the Hollinger International corporate governance scandal will tarnish newspapers in general, or Tribune in particular — and he predicted Chicago will remain a two-newspaper city well into the future.

Speaking at Northwestern University’s Medill School of Journalism the day the resignations of Hollinger CEO Conrad M. Black and Chicago Sun-Times Publisher F. David Radler were made public, FitzSimons said he didn’t know whether the fallout from the scandal will include new ownership for the rival Sun-Times. “We’ll see who wants to come in… I don’t know. One question is whether Conrad Black will give up the voting control (of the Hollinger Inc. holding company) that he has.”

Responding to a question from E&P, FitzSimons said he did not believe newspapers in general were laggards on corporate governance issues, and he said Tribune Co. was often ahead of its time on those issues. “We have independent directors, we have had (top executives) certifying (financial statements) since 1978 — way before Sarbanes-Oxley,” he said, referring to the 2002 law that tightened many corporate structure and reporting requirements. Like most big media companies, Tribune does not expense stock options — a bugaboo with corporate governance critics — but he said that is because the company is seeking “clarity” on the issue from regulators.

“Our company is very conservative in accounting and very conservative in compensation as well,” he said.

At his talk, which was attended by the public from the Evanston, Ill., area as well as by many journalism students, FitzSimons was asked whether there would still be two major daily newspapers in Chicago in “15 or 20” years. “Sure,” he said. “I would absolutely think there is room for two good newspapers.”

In response to a question from a student, FitzSimons took a shot at The News About the News: American Journalism in Peril the book by Washington PostExecutive Editor Leonard Downie Jr. and Post Associate Editor Robert G. Kaiser.

“I was totally outraged at that book,” FitzSimons said. “I don’t agree with Len Downie at all.” FitzSimons said the book ignored the faster and better reporting that modern technology has made possible, and instead mythologized past reporting that was slower and more limited. “I’d like to ask (Downie) what past he’s talking about, and I’ll ask him, the next time I see him.”

FitzSimons devoted most of his speech to making the case for keeping the looser media ownership rules that were approved by the Federal Communications Commission last June, and are now threatened by congressional proposals to reimpose regulation. “We have more variety than ever,” FitzSimons said of the news media. “What our industry needs now more than ever is clarity — establish the rules, and let us operate.”

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