Chicago Magazine graphic from 2013.
I'm not the only one seeing some Sam Zell and Donald Trump in the new maximum leader of Tribune Publishing, and thus of the Los Angeles Times. Michael Ferro is starting to make even Gannett, which wants the Tribune newspapers, seem like a potential upgrade.
Ken Doctor, the astute newspaper industry observer, points us all to Chicago Magazine’s 2013 profile of Ferro — "neatly captured the outsized ego of the man" — and amasses the reasons not to buy into what Ferro is selling. Writing Wednesday at Politico, Doctor describes Ferro as one of those guys who firehoses ideas nonstop for 15 minutes, wrapping himself in the vernacular of innovation and technology, and when he stops pitching his listeners aren't sure there's much if anything there. "If we are to make historical comparisons, the advent of Michael Ferro as a (probably short-time) newspaper mogul would place him as the illegitimate offspring of swashbuckling Tribune owner Sam Zell and former Freedom Communications CEO Aaron Kushner, a fount of ideas that quickly dried up," Doctor writes.
Over the past month, Ferro has talked to numerous peers in the newspaper industry. Actually, according to several high-placed media executives who briefed me on their conversations with Ferro, the better construction is “talked at.”
All those to whom I spoke confidentially describe their hour-plus long sessions as nothing short of bizarre. The common format: Michael Ferro talks for 90% or more of the time, shooting a “firehose” of ideas, largely unpunctuated by questions, opportunities for feedback or responses, or any evidence of self-reflection....No matter how vast the experience or well-burnished the credentials of those in the room, the script is the same: Ferro Uninterruptus.
Ferro has already Hollywood-cast himself as a newspaper Jedi — capable of saving the business of newspapering against the most powerful Forces. What has that gained him? Three years ago, the company of stars like Jenny McCarthy and Jim Belushi. More recently, Martin Scorsese and Steven Zaillian.
Onward and upward for the star-struck Ferro, who, as we detailed in February (POLITICO: “Oscar spotlight a dim one for hometown L.A. Times”) attended the Oscars on tickets usually used by working reporters.
But one industry observer’s Hollywood metaphor for Ferro was less kind. “He’s like Butch Cassidy, and he should realize he’ll soon be facing what seems to be the whole Bolivian army.”
Doctor also notes that, even after a decade of you-can't-make-this-up Tribune soap operas, the recent period that saw Ferro buy in to the company, become non-executive chairman, oust CEO Jack Griffin and install editors such as the LAT's Davan Maharaj in the dual role of publisher stands out. "These last four months of Tribune history would seem so astonishingly weird — if you didn’t know about the last decade of Tribune’s troubled life," Doctor writes. Heh.
By the way, Orange County has seen this act before: the newspaper savior who wasn't.
Also this: In a Wall Street Journal analysis of Gannett's $815 million offer and Ferro's delaying response, Ferro shoots down the idea of ever selling the Los Angeles Times by itself. “The L.A. Times is about 50% of the company," Ferro says. "Without it, Tribune would be in terrible shape."