The New York Times published an unflattering investigative report detailing the rapidly deteriorating culture and work environment at the Tribune Company after it was taken over by billionaire Sam Zell in 2007.
The Tribune Company owns the The Los Angeles Times, The Chicago Tribune, The Hartford Courant, The Baltimore Sun, and several radio and television stations.
Excerpts from the article:
In January 2008, soon after the venerable Tribune Company was sold for $8.2 billion, Randy Michaels, a new top executive, ran into several other senior colleagues at the InterContinental Hotel next to the Tribune Tower in Chicago.
After Mr. Michaels arrived, according to two people at the bar that night, he sat down and said, “watch this,” and offered the waitress $100 to show him her breasts. The group sat dumbfounded.
“Here was this guy, who was responsible for all these people, getting drunk in front of senior people and saying this to a waitress who many of us knew,” said one of the Tribune executives present, who declined to be identified because he had left the company and did not want to be quoted criticizing a former employer. “I have never seen anything like it.”
It was a preview of what would become a rugged ride under the new ownership. Mr. Zell and Mr. Michaels, who was promoted to chief executive of the Tribune Company in December 2009, arrived with much fanfare, suggesting they were going to breathe innovation and reinvention into the conservative company.
The new management did transform the work culture, however. Based on interviews with more than 20 employees and former employees of Tribune, Mr. Michaels’s and his executives’ use of sexual innuendo, poisonous workplace banter and profane invective shocked and offended people throughout the company. Tribune Tower, the architectural symbol of the staid company, came to resemble a frat house, complete with poker parties, juke boxes and pervasive sex talk.
“Working at Tribune means accepting that you might hear a word that you, personally, might not use,” the new [employee] handbook 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.” It then added, “This should be understood, should not be a surprise and not considered harassment.”
The new permissive ethos was quickly on display. When Kim Johnson, who had worked with Mr. Michaels as an executive at Clear Channel, was hired as senior vice president of local sales on June 16, 2008, the news release said she was “a former waitress at Knockers — the Place for Hot Racks and Cold Brews,” a jocular reference to a fictitious restaurant chain.
A woman who used to work at the Tribune Company in a senior position, but did not want to be identified because she now worked at another media company in Chicago, said that Mr. Michaels and Marc Chase, who was brought in to run Tribune Interactive, had a loud conversation on an open balcony above a work area about the sexual suitability of various employees.
“The conversation just wafted down on all of the people who were sitting there.” She also said that she was present at a meeting where 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.
There have been complaints about Mr. Michaels in the past, however. In 1995, Mr. Michaels and Jacor settled a suit brought by Liz Richards, a former talk show host in Florida who filed an E.E.O.C. complaint and a civil suit, saying she had been bitten on the neck by Mr. Michaels and that he walked through the office wearing a sexual device around his neck.
“They were like 14-year-old boys — no boundaries at all — but with money and power,” Ms. Richards said in an interview.
During and immediately after Mr. Michaels’s tenure at Clear Channel, three lawsuits were filed contending sexual harassment at the company. One plaintiff, Karen Childress, a senior executive, said she was fired after complaining about receiving lewd e-mail from senior company executives. In her complaint, Ms. Childress also stated that women who slept with male executives at the firm were promoted. The cases were settled out of court. Clear Channel declined to comment on the lawsuits.
On Dec. 11, 2008, the Tribune board was made aware that not everyone appreciated the new cultural dynamics at the company. The board received an anonymous letter detailing a hostile work environment and a pattern of hiring based on personal relationships and suggested that the company was leaving itself open to “potential litigation risk.”
Original article: At Flagging Tribune, Tales of a Bankrupt Culture