Tuesday, December 09, 2008

Tribune, Blagojevich: not a great day for Chicago

No matter where you are in the country, you've probably seen the news today about the Tribune bankruptcy and the story surrounding Illinois Governor Blagojevich's arrest/corruption scandal.

I think the post title says it all, but let's include some actual news coverage of these events, just to make sure we're all up to speed.

Would it be strange to start off with coverage on the governor's arrest from the very paper (Chicago Tribune) whose editorial board was quietly threatened by said governor due to critical coverage of his term in office? It would? Well, let's do it anyway.

From the Chicago Tribune:

"Gov. Rod Blagojevich and his chief of staff, John Harris, were arrested today by FBI agents for what U.S. Atty. Patrick Fitzgerald called a "staggering" level of corruption involving pay-to-play politics in Illinois' top office.

Blagojevich is accused of a wide-ranging criminal conspiracy, including alleged attempts by the governor to try to sell or trade the U.S. Senate seat left vacant by President-elect Barack Obama in exchange for financial benefits for the governor and his wife. Blagojevich also is accused of obtaining campaign contributions in exchange for other official actions."

I'm sure the nation will be shocked, shocked!, by this latest turn in Illinois politics. Remember, when it comes to politics, this is just the stuff that actually makes it into the newspapers...

Back to the newspaper company in question: the Tribune Company, publishers of the Chicago Tribune. Tribune has filed for bankruptcy after struggling under the weight of too much debt and a dying industry business model.

Will a Tribune Co. bankruptcy/restructuring lead a refocusing of the newspaper industry? Mark Trumbull at CSMonitor has some thoughts on the industry's future:

"...Few expect newspapers, any more than cars, to suddenly disappear. But an already difficult industry transition now looks harder. More bankruptcies seem likely, and some papers will simply shut their doors.

"This perfect storm of events has sucked in every player in the industry with astonishing speed," says Paul Gillin, a Boston-area media analyst and consultant. Yet he predicts that out of the chaos "will emerge a new kind of media, a new kind of journalism." "

Personal take: I grew up reading the Chicago Tribune. I stopped reading it, for the most part, several years ago. When I see the paper now, it looks and reads like a cheap tabloid news rag. I wonder if the layout redesigns and news staff cutbacks helped hasten the company's decline.

Back in 2007, I thought if anyone could pull off a vanity investment in a big city newspaper company, it would be canny old Sam Zell. He was ready for a challenge and flush with success from the then recent $39 billion sale of EOP to private equity Blackstone.

Unfortunately, since then, the Tribune newspaper offices and Wrigley Field have not been as easy to sell.