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Tribune’s bankrupt culture to blame for lost religion reporting?

by Brad A. Greenberg

October 18, 2010 | 12:58 pm

The story is a few weeks old now, but it’s still worth reading David Carr massive investigation into the bankrupt culture at Tribune headquarters. It adds a ton to the Sam Zell mythology—mainly breaking it down and making the once-perceived white knight on a motorcycle out to be an angry little man full of hubris. Much of the article focuses on Zell’s pick for Tribune CEO, Randy Michaels.

Here’s a snippet from Carr:

Mr. Michaels, who was initially in charge of Tribune’s broadcasting and interactive businesses as well as six newspapers, was a former shock jock who made a name for himself — and a lot of money for Mr. Zell — by scooping up radio stations while at the Zell-controlled Jacor Communications. Jacor was later sold to Clear Channel Communications for $4.4 billion.

In turn, Mr. Michaels remade Tribune’s management, installing in major positions more than 20 former associates from the radio business — people he knew from his time running Jacor and Clear Channel — a practice that came to be known as “friends and family” at the company.

One of their first priorities was rewriting the employee handbook.

“Working at Tribune means accepting that you might hear a word that you, personally, might not use,” the new handbook warned. “You might experience an attitude you don’t share. You might hear a joke that you don’t consider funny. That is because a loose, fun, nonlinear atmosphere is important to the creative process.” It then added, “This should be understood, should not be a surprise and not considered harassment.”

The new permissive ethos was quickly on display. When Kim Johnson, who had worked with Mr. Michaels as an executive at Clear Channel, was hired as senior vice president of local sales on June 16, 2008, the news release said she was “a former waitress at Knockers — the Place for Hot Racks and Cold Brews,” a jocular reference to a fictitious restaurant chain.

There was a lot, lot more in Carr’s article. And as if to hammer home the accuracy of Carr’s reporting, Lee Abrams, who was Tribune’s chief innovation officer and rambler in chief, followed up last week with a crude email to Tribune employers. This resulted in his resignation Friday.

Could the cultural bankruptcy explain why religion coverage has gotten the shaft in the Tribune family of newspapers, particularly at the Los Angeles Times and Orlando Sentinel? Probably not. But that explanation would make me feel more comfortable than the reality that papers just don’t find religion reporting as important in the world of smaller staffs.

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Since launching the blog in 2007, I’ve referred to myself as “a God-fearing Christian with devilishly good Jewish looks.” The description, I’d say, is an accurate one,...

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