- Jamie Ramsay
What exactly does Michael Ferro want out of the news industry? It's a fair question for the man who controls the country's third-largest newspaper publishing company, including the vast majority of publications covering the Chicago area.
The 51-year-old has never seemed particularly enamored of any of the newspapers he's invested in. A former top editor at the Sun-Times when it was under Ferro's chairmanship of Wrapports, the coterie of wealthy Chicago businessmen that formed to buy the daily along with the Reader five years ago, expressed doubt that Ferro ever so much as looked at the paper. Since Ferro jumped across town in February 2016 to become chairman and majority shareholder of the company that owns the Chicago Tribune, Los Angeles Times, and other papers, the most notable moves he's made have been changing the name of Tribune Publishing to the guttural Tronc and fending off (against the wishes of shareholders) efforts by Gannett to purchase the company.
Projects cooked up under Ferro's watch seem to be more akin to PR stunts than to sustainable models for the future of news and information. There was the roundly ridiculed aggregator, the Sun-Times Network, which was finally shut down last year; the empty-headed lifestyle magazine Splash, a Ferro pet project that he purchased and added to the Tronc portfolio shortly after his arrival there; and now the Los Angeles Times's yet-to-be-unveiled "international entertainment strategy."
What's sad is that Ferro plainly thinks of himself as an equal to Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos. Sure, both are rich swinging dicks from the tech world who added a prestige newspaper to their respective portfolios. But aside from the vast disparity in their bank accounts (Bezos's is much, much bigger), the most glaring difference between the two for anyone who actually cares about journalism is that Bezos has deeply invested in the Washington Post's editorial resources—and it shows. Ferro meanwhile has engineered the cutting and consolidation of his news operations, preoccupied instead with bulking up the ability to make a cheap buck on automated video. He believes harvesting content and stuffing it into a figurative funnel—as Tronc functionaries once described the work of journalism in a much-maligned company brand video—will manifest in cash on the other side.
During his turbulent five years at Wrapports, Ferro approved the creation of Grid, an ambitious business publication that was unfortunately compromised by puff pieces about Ferro's friends. Ferro's strained relationship with the Sun-Times reached its nadir in 2014, when the paper's highly respected Springfield bureau chief, Dave McKinney, resigned after management threatened to reassign him because a story he wrote stuck in the craw of then-gubernatorial candidate Bruce Rauner, Ferro's pal and a former Wrapports investor.
Due perhaps to his background as the founder of Click Commerce—a dotcom-era business-to-business software firm that was bought by Illinois Tool Works in 2006 and shortly thereafter tanked—Ferro is drawn to technology fads. That tendency coupled with his apparent attention deficit has not served his newspapers well. At the Sun-Times he dabbled with ill-fated bitcoin strategies: bitcoin subscriptions, a bitcoin paywall, a bitcoin wallet. And now at Tronc he's on to artificial intelligence. (His obsession is reportedly fueled by the "thousands" of technology patents granted to Tronc by billionaire Patrick Soon-Shiong, whom Ferro ousted from the Tronc board last March.) "There's all these really new, fun features we're going to be able to do with artificial intelligence and content to make videos faster," Ferro babbled on CNBC in June 2016. "Right now, we're doing a couple hundred videos a day; we think we should be doing 2,000 videos a day."
Aside from AI, Ferro's chief concern at Tronc seems to be milking the company for everything it's worth. Weeks after becoming the controlling shareholder, Ferro reportedly strong-armed Los Angeles Times editors into handing over Academy Awards tickets meant for reporters assigned to cover the ceremony. Times journalists organizing the newsroom's union drive recently discovered Tronc paid $4.6 million to one of Ferro's other companies for use of its private jet over just seven months this year. (Tronc responded that the expenses were "reasonable and appropriate.") The union organizers also found preposterous disparities between executive and newsroom compensation: Tronc CEO Justin Dearborn, a longtime Ferro lieutenant, makes more than a million dollars more per year than his counterpart at Gannett, a larger and more valuable company, while journalists with the Tronc-owned Times Community News are paid $40,000 salaries. Meanwhile, Tronc-owned Baltimore Sun Media Group closed the alt-weekly City Paper, and last month Ferro's company began cutting jobs at its latest acquisition, the New York Daily News.
As Ferro continues meddling in a business that's nothing but gloom and doom, adding more and more publications to Tronc's portfolio, the question remains: Why? Surely it's not the profit margins. And he's never expressed some deeply held reverence for the fourth estate's role in our democracy. Ferro may very well believe himself to be the chosen one, the beleaguered industry's white knight. For passionate Chicago news consumers and the journalists they rely on, it is a terrifying thought. v