The New York Times has published a coruscating investigation into the management culture of the now-bankrupt Tribune Company, owner of the Chicago Tribune, Los Angeles Times and the Chicago Cubs, following its $8.2 billion sale in late 2007. Under the stewardship of controlling shareholder Sam Zell, writes the Times' David Carr, Tribune's Chicago headquarters "came to resemble a frathouse," in whose corridors and boardrooms the sound of "sexual innuendo, poisonous workplace banter and profane invective" became commonplace. Here are the 6 juiciest revelations:
A top executive who allegedly offered a waitress $100 to show him her breasts
Carr's investigation kicks off with a contentious anecdote: Randy Michaels, former disc jockey and newly-appointed executive at Tribune Company, allegedly offered a waitress $100 to show him her breasts in front of various senior colleagues at a Chicago hotel in January 2008. Michaels denies the claim, but Carr offers it as a "preview of what would become a rugged ride under the new ownership."
Casual sexism in the workplace...
Michaels and his fellow executives displayed a "permissive ethos" when it came to gender relations, writes Carr. Kim Johnson, a senior vice president of local sales, was jokingly described in the news release on her appointment as "a former waitress at Knockers — the place for Hot Racks and Cold Brews." Michaels and another executive reportedly discussed the "sexual suitability of various employees" within earshot of a work area, and during one meeting a "female executive jovially offered to bring in her assistant to perform a sexual act on someone in a meeting who seemed to be in a bad mood."
... and the employee handbook re-written to permit it
A new handbook for employees was written to accommodate the firm's new management style. "Working at Tribune means accepting that you might hear a word that you, personally, might not use," the employee guide warned. "You might experience an attitude you don’t share. You might hear a joke that you don’t consider funny. That is because a loose, fun, nonlinear atmosphere is important to the creative process... This should be understood, should not be a surprise and not considered harassment."
An "economic dunce" in charge of innovation
Lee Abrams, a former radio programmer who describes himself as an "economic dunce," was appointed chief innovation officer of Tribune in March 2008. Abrams repeatedly sent out "stream-of-consciousness memos" to staff that ran for "5,000 typo-ridden, idiosyncratic words," says Carr. One said, in full caps, that "news & information is the new rock n roll." Another expressed surprise that the Los Angeles Times' Iraq correspondents were actually based in the country.
Management's reward after bankruptcy? $100 million in bonuses
Zell's plan to pay off the loans he took out to buy Tribune was dependent on the sale of the Chicago Cubs — but the recession made that impossible. As a result, the company posted a loss of $124 million in the third quarter of 2008, and filed for bankruptcy in December of the same year. Nevertheless, Tribune still saw fit to hand a total of $57.3 million in bonuses to its current management in the period from May 2009 to February 2010. Proposed bonuses for this year, discovers Carr, "could bring the figure for management pay enhancements to more than $100 million." It makes you "want to scream," Los Angeles Times columnist Steve Lopez tells the paper.
Poker and cigars in a historic boardroom
In June 2009 — just seven months after the company declared itself bankrupt — Tribune's senior managers threw themselves a party in the former office of newspaper magnate Robert R. McCormick. Smoke detectors were covered up, and poker tables and cigars brought in. The company's head of security later posted pictures of the revelry on his Facebook page. "We are in the office of the guy who ran the company from the 1920s to 1955," he wrote on his wall. "We pretty much desecrated it with gambling, booze and cigars."