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Tronc’s Smash and Grab

How the media conglomerate is gouging its own newspapers to pay off investors and executives

Spencer Platt/Getty Images

A day after Tronc gutted the century-old New York Daily News, the paper’s new editor, Robert York, begged his remaining staff to be patient. According to CNN’s Tom Kludt, he asked “for 30 days to give him time to demonstrate that he is taking the publication in the right direction.” The problem here is fairly obvious: Why did Tronc lay off half of the editorial staff of a venerable and essential paper like the Daily News, one of the two big tabloids in New York City, without a plan for the next 30—let alone 90 or 365—days?

York reassured the tabloid’s skeletal staff that there were no further layoffs in the foreseeable future, but they were still vexed by the “widespread confusion about why the layoffs happened before a strategic plan was developed,” Kludt wrote. Asked why they didn’t lay people off after completing a plan, Tronc Vice President Grant Whitmore responded, “That’s a very reasonable question—that’s not the way we did it.”

Tronc, formerly (and reportedly soon-to-be) the Tribune Company, is the third-largest newspaper conglomerate in the country. It manages some very important newspapers in addition to the Daily News, including The Chicago Tribune and The Baltimore Sun. Until recently, it was the owner of The Los Angeles Times, which it sold to biotech billionaire Patrick Soon-Shiong, in a deal that erased the $327 million in debt it had on its books. Along with the layoffs at the Daily News, that deal tells us a lot about Tronc’s so-called business strategy, which amounts to paying a small number people off at the expense of hundreds of people’s livelihoods.

What is Tronc? That depends on the day you ask. Since it rebranded itself as Tronc two years ago (which stands for Tribune Online Content), the company has fluctuated in size. Sometimes it bids on newspapers and online commerce sites and sometimes it sells them. There have been rumors that its other properties, including the Tribune and the Daily News, are for sale, but Whitmore told staff he was “not aware” of any plans to sell the paper. Michael Ferro, Tronc’s former chairman, had exited the company earlier this year—after pocketing $15 million—but has since re-appeared to push for a cash dividend that would benefit him personally.

Throughout, one constant has remained: Tronc has cut jobs again and again. A day after the Daily News layoffs, other Tronc papers were informed of layoffs, too.

Tronc has sold itself as a forward-thinking publisher, even though its efforts at digital transformation are generally similar to those taking place at McClatchy and Gannett, its larger competitors. For the last two years, the company has been pushing its properties to reinvent themselves as leaner and “flatter,” with “fewer job titles across the newsrooms and across the company and a higher reporter-to-editor ratio,” according to emails it sent in March of this year.

But the layoffs at the Daily News expose the hollowness of this strategy—it may appeal to Wall Street but it doesn’t make sense for the actual business of producing a newspaper. The News, for instance, reduced its sports section and photography team to threadbare crews and fired many of its reporters. While the paper’s city team remains reasonably strong, it is a shadow of its former self. Breaking news reporting, if it is not merely a euphemism for aggregating news at lightning speed, requires an investment in both reporters and quality, both of which cost money that Tronc is unwilling to spend.

Tronc has claimed that the web’s efficiencies justify these draconian spending cuts. The internet, the argument goes, makes everything leaner and cheaper. But journalism doesn’t work like that, not really—especially the kind of journalism the Daily News does best, which involves deep and sustained relationships with New York communities.

Furthermore, while Tronc has been cutting journalism jobs, it has been enriching its executives. Soon-Shiong’s purchase of The Los Angeles Times went through last Friday, giving Tronc $500 million. It used $327 million of that to pay off its remaining debt to JPMorgan Chase and Bank of America, but still laid off up to 80 journalists on Monday and several more the following day. In June, it was reported that the company was considering a cash dividend of $75 million from the proceeds of the sale.

Ferro’s involvement in the company is particularly egregious. He resigned as chairman in March just ahead of a Fortune report alleging that he had sexually harassed two women. But on the way out the door, he got Tronc to pay out a $15 million, three-year consulting contract in full. Since resigning from the board, Ferro has meddled with the sale of The Los Angeles Times and pushed for the $75 million cash dividend, from which he would pocket more money. Ferro is still Tronc’s largest shareholder, a position he has used to exert influence since stepping down from the company.

So Tronc is firing journalists and selling gutted newspapers when it can, while executives pocket the proceeds. Every few months there are new initiatives to compete in the digital realm, but there is no actual investment in creating journalism. Instead, corners are cut and sales are floated.

All of this is happening in a larger context. Newspapers (particularly local ones) are figuring out how to survive in the age of Facebook and Google; the advertising revenue streams that sustained them for decades have dried up. Nearly 60 percent of journalism jobs have disappeared since 2000. The Daily News’s struggles didn’t begin when Tronc purchased the company last fall—they stretch back years and likely would exist without Tronc’s interference.

Still, Tronc is robbing the coffers during this crisis. There isn’t a plan—at least not one that involves journalism. By all appearances it is looting as much as it can, while it can.

Correction: An earlier version of this article misidentified Tronc executive Grant Whitmore as Lucas Whitmore.