By: Jennifer Saba
Tribune executives sketched out the future of its publishing division during a Q1 conference call with media and investors Thursday afternoon — including accelerated plans to “right-size” its newspapers.
One of the main strategies outlined by Tribune Chief Operating Officer Randy Michaels involves measuring the productivity of journalists. “This is a new thing,” he said. “Nobody ever said, ‘How many column inches did someone produce?'”
With top man Sam Zell weighing in, cutbacks in staffing and number of pages in the papers were also put loudly on the table.
Michaels said of the changes, ?This is going to happen quickly.? Zell added: ?I promise you, he?s underestimating the level of aggressiveness with which we are attacking this whole challenge.?
The Tribune later quoted industry analyst John Morton: “Whenever somebody who has no background or fundamental understanding of the newspaper business takes over a newspaper company, I worry?and I worry about the Tribune Co. There’s always a problem with trying to measure journalists’ output by quantity when what matters most is quality,” he said.
Michaels told listeners that in Los Angeles the average journalist at the Los Angeles Times produces about 51 pages a year, while in Harford, Conn., the average is more like 300 pages a year.
He acknowledged that different reporters, such as those dedicated to investigative stories, turn out various amount of copy depending on job descriptions. He did not mention if online contributions are included in the count.
“You find you eliminate a fair number of people while not eliminating very much content,” Michaels explained about the strategy. “I understand there are other factors. … If you work hard and are producing a lot for us, everything is great.”
When pressed by an employee at The Hartford (Conn.) Courant about the level of detail involved in productivity testing, Michaels said it depended on the job description. “The decision will not be made in Chicago,” he said. “It’s helpful data for our managers and publishers to have as we make decisions to right-size the paper.”
Jim O’Shea, who was pushed out as editor of the Los Angeles Times, is quoted on today’s New York Times suggesting that all of this misunderstands how newspapers really work, and adds: ?The problem is the papers aren?t producing ad revenue, and diminishing the journalism isn?t going to solve that.”
Michaels also addressed the number of pages that make up Tribune newspapers, noting that only about 12% of costs come from the gathering of news while the rest of the cost is in production and printing.
He cited the number of advertising pages in the newspaper, using The Wall Street Journal’s overall page count as a yard stick. On some days Tribune’s newspapers were two-thirds full of advertising, but on other days it was a lot less. “A paper looks good at 50% advertising,” Michaels said. “What you find out is that you can take 500 editorial pages a week out of newspaper and have a 50/50 ad-to-content ratio.”
Michaels said the Chicago Tribune is typically 80 pages per edition, and then compared that count with the Wall Street Journal — which is around 48 pages on average. “If we take the Los Angeles Times to a 50/50 ratio eliminating 82 pages a week, the smallest papers would be Monday and Tuesday at 56 pages. It’s still larger than the Wall Street Journal. … We can save a lot of money by producing the right size newspapers.”
When asked if the downsizing of newspapers would free up real estate value, Sam Zell, Tribune’s CEO, responded that everything is on the table.
“I think the answer is that we are a media company, not a real estate company,” he said, adding the company is looking at holdings in markets like Los Angeles and Baltimore with valuable real estate. “I have no qualms about moving units,” Zell added, noting that in the end Tribune should have very little of its assets wrapped up in real estate.
“It’s been five months. The further we go, the more opportunities we see,” Zell said in his closing remarks. “We don’t intend to reduce the pace.”