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owning it all: the tribune company

In 2000, the Los Angeles Times was one of several newspapers bought by the Tribune Company, a Chicago-based media corporation, as part of an $8.3 billion deal that the company hoped would help form the start of a new media empire. In this excerpt from his book Fighting For Air: The Battle to Control America's Media, sociologist Eric Klinenberg examines the Tribune Company's ambition and the impact of its diverse media holdings in its home city. [Update - 4/3/07: Billionaire businessman Sam Zell reached agreement to buy the Tribune Company in a deal valued at roughly $13 billion.]

Editor's Note: FRONTLINE received a letter from Chicago Tribune Editor Ann Marie Lipinski objecting to Klinenberg's critique of the Chicago Tribune's hard news coverage. Read the newspaper's letter and author Eric Klinenberg's response.

During the past two decades the Chicago-based Tribune Company, a midlevel media conglomerate with outsize aspirations to climb to the top of the nation's leading urban markets, helped lead the industry's aggressive lobbying campaign to eliminate long-standing FCC "cross-ownership" regulations that prohibit one corporation from controlling a newspaper and broadcast station in the same market -- unless the arrangement is "grandfathered" into law because of arrangements that predate the restriction, or permitted through a special federal waiver.

More than any other media company, Tribune has wagered its future on repealing the cross-ownership ban. As its president and CEO Dennis FitzSimons recently boasted: "Tribune anticipated deregulation. We acquired Renaissance Communications [which owned six television stations, including WBZL in Miami] in 1997 [for $1.1 billion], giving us cross-ownership situations in South Florida. We acquired Times Mirror [whose properties included the Los Angeles Times] in 2000, giving us cross-ownership situations in Los Angeles, New York and Hartford, Connecticut. We now have five markets where we own both a newspaper and television station." …

With a head start on other media conglomerates, Tribune became the only corporation to own and operate a major newspaper and broadcast television station in each of the top three markets, New York (Newsday and WPIX), Los Angeles (Los Angeles Times and KTLA), and Chicago (Tribune and WGN). It's a strong business model, as FitzSimons attested. "Those three markets have 16 percent of total U.S. population and 25 percent of households with income of more than $150,000," he boasted to shareholders. "Advertisers have to be there." "We're confident in the future of local mass media," added Pat Mullen, the president of Tribune Broadcasting.

For Tribune, no city is as important as Chicago, where it operates its flagship local newspaper; WGN-TV, which broadcasts local sports, news, and entertainment; WGN Radio-720, the region's top-rated AM radio station (which in many ratings periods beats the most popular FM station, Clear Channel's WGCI, as the top station overall); Chicago, the city's leading local magazine; Chicagoland's Television (CLTV), the only local cable news and talk station;, the city's top online entertainment and listings guide;, a leading sports Web site; Hoy, the city's most popular Spanish-language daily newspaper; and RedEye, a weekday tabloid designed to lure young professional readers between the ages of eighteen and thirty-four.

Tribune's corporate leaders are deeply connected to the region's power elite, and the company has made major investments in Chicago's civic life. After the death of longtime editor and publisher Colonel Robert R. McCormick in 1955, Tribune helped establish the McCormick Tribune Foundation, which makes substantial contributions to universities, schools, and other civic institutions. The Tribune and McCormick names saturate the Chicago metropolitan area, from the monumental McCormick Place convention center on the city's lakefront to the ultramodern McCormick Tribune Center on the Northwestern University campus, where many of the city's future journalists train. To top it off, Tribune also owns the city's beloved sports franchise, the Chicago Cubs.

According to Bruce DuMont, a veteran local broadcaster who once worked at WGN and is the founder and current president of the Museum of Broadcast Communications, Chicago is "a Tribune Company town" because Tribune's diverse media holdings give it "many platforms to influence what people see, hear, and read," and its "well-known and well-endowed institutions give [it] tentacles that reach far and deep in the city." Sitting in the new museum building office space, the garrulous media executive told me that being the headquarters for a giant media company benefits the city, because it gets journalistic and philanthropic attention that most cities -- including those where Tribune owns other newspapers -- have lost. As in nearly all U.S. metropolitan areas, DuMont said, "our banks are no longer Chicago owned. Our insurance companies are no longer Chicago owned. Our utility companies are no longer Chicago owned, whether it's electric, gas, or the phone company. Our cable system is not locally owned. The only major thing that is still owned is the newspaper and the media company."

Locally owned and operated newspapers are all but obsolete in the contemporary media market -- even in major cities such as Los Angeles, Houston, and Miami, whose wealth and sophistication suggest that they could support one. "Today," says Frank Blethen, the outspoken publisher whose family has run the Seattle Times for five generations and is currently battling the Hearst Corporation, a conglomerate on a par with Tribune, for control of the Seattle market, "only about 250 of the nation's 1500 newspapers are independently owned and operated," and only a portion of these are locally managed. Speaking at the University of Washington's Democracy Fest just before the 2004 election, Blethen declared that "frighteningly, our nation's newspapers and media are now mostly controlled by a small group of corporations whose only value is more wealth and unbridled control."

In Chicago a growing number of residents and community organizations worry that Tribune's omnipresence gives the conglomerate undue influence in local affairs, and that its multiple platforms for delivering news and entertainment result in Chicagoans seeing, hearing, and reading the same stories, in various forms, over and over during the course of a day. Chicago Tribune readers who turn on CLTV or WGN are likely to find print reporters or columnists repeating their accounts from the television news studio now located in the heart of the newspaper office or the radio studio on the ground floor, and are certain to get "cross-promotional" plugs for Tribune's other media products. Jack Fuller, the former president of Tribune Publishing, believes that the company should be entitled to own even more local outlets than it already has. He told the U.S. Senate Committee on Commerce, Science, and Transportation that it is impossible for any media company to dominate a market in a digital age. "In addition to newspapers, magazines, broadcast television and radio," he argued, "now Americans can get news from a proliferation of national all-news cable operations such as CNN, Fox News, and MSNBC, as well as from local cable operations … On the Internet they can get news from a wide variety of sites from all over the country and all over the world." Fuller glossed over the problems that most concern Chicagoans: that national cable stations and Internet sites provide virtually no additional local content, and that much of their "news" is actually commentary and entertainment, not the local reporting that newspapers once provided with zeal.

When it comes to local journalism in Chicago and most other U.S. cities, finding primary reporting is increasingly difficult, whether for conventional beats (such as city hall and the neighborhoods) or special investigative projects. Consolidation and the rise of chains have reduced the number of professional news sources, and nowhere has this reduction been more dramatic than in the newspaper industry. According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, newspaper employment dropped from 455,700 in 1990 to 381,300 in 2003, and although local newsrooms in small and midsize cities were hit especially hard, papers in major markets were not left unscathed.

Such rampant downsizing only began after major newspaper companies had established monopolies in most U.S. markets, buying up or forcing out independent local owners throughout the nation. The media scholar Phyllis Kaniss wrote that "between 1940 and 1989, New York City went from having eight to three major metropolitan papers, Los Angeles from eight to one, Boston from nine to two, Philadelphia from five to two … and Detroit, Kansas City, Dallas, Cleveland, and St. Louis from three to two." Whereas in 1923 about 40 percent of American cities had more than two daily newspapers and nearly all were locally owned and operated, by 2000 only about 2 percent of cities had more than one paper and roughly 80 percent of all dailies were owned by chains. The legendary press critic A. J. Liebling would have been particularly disturbed by this condition. In 1960 he wrote that "a city with one newspaper, or with a morning and an evening paper under one ownership, is like a man with one eye, and often the eye is glass."

Although Chicago is one of the few American cities to retain two major newspapers, Tribune has used its many media outlets to establish a dominant voice. When a story piques the interest of Tribune editors, it echoes through every medium, giving the company extraordinary influence in setting the local agenda. For the Justice Derailed series, an ongoing investigation of abuses in the criminal justice system including corruption in capital punishment cases, Tribune has generously backed a team of star journalists and published nine separate multipart series since 1999. "They offered us everything we needed," said Maurice Possley, one of the lead reporters when we spoke. "Time, space, and resources to pursue the investigation. They got us a LexisNexis subscription for the legal research. They didn't demand the story right away. They let us do the reporting, develop it. They gave us full support."

Tribune promoted the series by placing the authors on its radio, television, and Internet outlets. Steve Mills, another lead reporter, explained to me: "I couldn't ask for any more support from the Tribune. We did a ton of local media after the report came out. We did CLTV and WGN, and that helped it pop to the national level." Steve Edwards, from the public radio station WBEZ, said that "if the Tribune decides something was a major story and runs front-page coverage and repeated editorials on it, you would hear that story topping many local newscasts, you would hear other reporters doing more coverage of that issue. You would hear more roundtable discussions of that most likely on WBEZ and WTTW [the public television station]. You would hear more coverage of it on WGN radio and WGN-TV and on CLTV. There's no question there would be a ripple effect. They have put the death penalty front and center on the agenda, and on that issue they've been huge."

Not only has the Justice Derailed project served the city's public interest; it has also helped save the lives of innocent people that the state of Illinois had sentenced to death. The Republican George Ryan, an advocate of capital punishment who was the governor when the Tribune initiated its series, publicly acknowledged that the paper's reporting established a compelling case for exonerating wrongfully convicted inmates, pardoning others, and commuting the death sentences of all 156 people that Illinois had condemned to die -- an act Ryan committed in his last days in office. "The Tribune series left me reeling," Ryan explained. "Half of the nearly three hundred capital cases in Illinois had been reversed for a new trial or re-sentencing. Over half! ... After seeing, again and again, how close we came to the ultimate nightmare, I did the only thing I could do. Thirteen times we almost strapped innocent men to a gurney, wheeled them to the state's death chamber and injected fatal doses of poison in their veins. I knew I had to act ... until I can be sure that everyone sentenced to death in Illinois is truly guilty, until I can be sure with moral certainty that no innocent man or woman is facing a lethal injection, no one will meet that fate."

Ryan's decision helped trigger a national political movement that compelled other governors and state legislatures to begin debating their own moratoria on capital punishment. The Tribune's investigations sparked a small journalistic movement, too. "Newspapers in other states tried reproducing what we had done," Possley said. "Our series provided a template." Barry Scheck, a cofounder of the Innocence Project, considers the newspaper's service invaluable. "The Tribune reporters played a major role in the death penalty debate," he told me. "Their work made a difference immediately, and it will have a long-term impact, too."

The downside of Tribune's power to set Chicago's news agenda and shape local political debates, however, is that both stories that it ignores and stories that its rivals uncover first are significantly less likely to seize the public's attention. Steve Rhodes, who wrote a local media column for Chicago magazine before Tribune took over, said, "Tribune is the eight-hundred-pound gorilla, and that's where most news derives from. The first thing that TV news directors do in the morning is read the Tribune. The radio is rip and read. The Sun-Times [Chicago's second-largest daily newspaper] is always responding and reacting to the Tribune." Bruce DuMont told me that Tribune uses its media holdings to advance its corporate goals and political projects, and to silence its opponents. "They have clout at the local political level, the state level, and the federal political level, because of the coverage that the Tribune Company and its various media entities include. It's not only reporting, but also the editorial coverage. If you're engaged in a project that is not favorable to the Tribune Company, you could end up by not having any media coverage, or bad media coverage. It makes it very difficult to compete." Even Chicago mayor Richard M. Daley, who has enjoyed nearly unchecked personal power in the city for almost two decades, acknowledges the influence of Tribune -- particularly when his favorite local sports team, the Chicago White Sox, wins the World Series but gets little attention. "How can you compete with Tribune?" he asked in the fall of 2005. "I mean, give me a break. They own the Cubs, they own WGN Radio [and] TV and CLTV. Come on. You think you are going to get any publicity for the White Sox? You can't. Let's be realistic."

What Daley observed in sports and culture coverage is even more true for hard news. Take the Chicago Housing Authority's Plan for Transformation, a $1.5-billion, ten-year project announced in 2000 that involved demolishing roughly eighteen thousand units of public housing around the city, developing or rehabilitating thousands of others, and moving thousands of families into the private market. According to the city, "Under the CHA Plan for Transformation, all 25,000 leaseholders and their families are asked to relocate at least once -- either to a temporary home or to a new or rehabbed permanent home." This was a massive and controversial project, the largest urban-planning initiative for Chicago since the Urban Renewal programs of the 1950s and it was led by an agency so inept that the federal government put it into receivership during the 1990s. The plan would affect a broad swath of the city, from the places that would gain or lose public housing complexes to the areas that would take in or refuse former CHA residents. In the process, the CHA plan would stir up the most sensitive and difficult urban issues: race, class, crime, discrimination, segregation, government power, and the rights of the poor. Yet local and federal agencies developed and implemented the plan without significant public input, not even from public housing residents.

Immediately, concerned citizens and civic groups began asking important questions. Why had there been so little public participation in the planning stages? Would the city government ensure that there were enough temporary and permanent units to house the relocated people? Would displaced residents have the right to return to their old neighborhoods, several of which were already gentrifying? What would happen to residents' long-standing communities and social networks? What kinds of special services would be available to them? How would the city of Chicago track the relocated people and measure the program's success? These questions were ripe for investigation, yet the Tribune made little effort to answer them. The newspaper lists almost fifty journalistic projects on its "special reports" Web site, yet not one concerns public housing.

Jamie Kalven, a local author and community organizer who spent years working in and writing about one of the largest CHA complexes, began our conversation about public housing by calling attention to the glaring inconsistencies between the Tribune's intensive coverage of death penalty cases and its routine neglect of the city's African-American neighborhoods, where chronically unemployed men are likely to be unfairly caught up in the dragnet and wrongfully accused. "The Tribune's big series is great," Kalven told me. "But it can hardly compensate for its failure to do daily coverage of the ways that the city and local police are unfairly criminalizing black people and the poor. This is Chicago -- the city where Amnesty International filed a report about human rights abuses by local authorities. Where is the regular beat on police violence, the devastating drug war, or corruption in the courts? What about coverage of segregation? Or poverty? You can't make up for that with a special report."

The CHA plan, Kalven argued, is far more important than the Tribune has acknowledged. "Chicago is indeed being transformed," he insisted. "Entire communities have been obliterated. Places have been erased. This restructuring of the city can only be compared to the period after the Great Fire of 1871. It represents a failure of various institutions. But above all it's a failure of journalism. The city's dominant journalistic institution, the Chicago Tribune, has provided at best intermittent coverage, nothing sustained. This has, in turn, tended to shape coverage by others. I have little doubt that had the Tribune inquired deeply and on a sustained basis into the dismantling of public housing, it would have created the occasion and the space for other media to follow its lead."

Eric Klinenberg is an associate professor of sociology at New York University and the author of Heat Wave: A Social Autopsy of Disaster in Chicago. From the Book FIGHTING FOR AIR: The Battle to Control America's Media by Eric Klinenberg. Reprinted by arrangement with Metropolitan Books, an imprint of Henry Holt and Company, LLC.. Copyright (c) 2007 by Eric Klinenberg. All rights reserved.

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posted feb. 27, 2007

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