Posted by Mitchell - April 2, 2024 (entry 770)

For years, Chicago Media Action had been a thorn in the side of the entity previously known as the Tribune Corporation. However, since I launched this monthly newsletter series I haven't yet talked at length about the Tribune Corporation and its descendants.

That now changes. In this essay, I discuss the relationship between Chicago Media Action (CMA) and Tribune -- the once-dominant role Tribune played in Chicago media and Chicago business, the struggles CMA took on against Tribune (focusing mainly on those over media ownership), the fallout from those struggles, and -- for the first time ever -- I disclose a previously secret correspondence I had which probably helped shape the trajectory of the downfall of Tribune.

Tribune was, to put it lightly, a significant player in the Chicago media and business scene. As I mentioned in a presentation I gave in 2018:

As part of the trend of media consolidation that ensued in the 1980s and 1990s, Tribune was able to extend its own reach to the extent that Tribune, in its own business memoranda, could claim that it can reach 90% of all Chicagoans. As documented by Erik Klinenberg in his book "Fighting for Air", Tribune at its peak could claim a media presence in newspapers with the Chicago Tribune, magazines with Chicago magazine, television with WGN TV, radio with WGN AM, Spanish language media with its ownership in Hoy, and even ownership of the Chicago Cubs baseball team.

But Tribune didn't want to stop there. As I continued:

Tribune had grander ambitions still: it sought to become a top-ten media company by building out TV-newspaper duopolies across America. It achieved a significant step in that direction when in the early 2000s Tribune bought the Times-Mirror newspaper chain, thus gaining a TV-duopoly foothold in New York, Los Angeles, Baltimore, and Hartford, Connecticut. Tribune got [permission] from the FCC to keep the duopolies in these cities in contravention ownership rules. But extending its growth required changing or abolishing [FCC] ownership limits, "deregulating" in the neoliberal parlance of the time. In early 2002 and 2003, with a Republican FCC in the majority, a Republican in the White House, Republicans in command of both houses of Congress, and Republicans in key roles in the judiciary, Tribune's dream -- and America's collective nightmare -- was about to come true.

And it was at this point that Chicago Media Action entered the fray -- working like hell and joining other initiatives to raise awareness and stop the ownership changes. Those efforts proved successful, as discussed in previous issues of this newsletter.

The Tribune tried to fight back -- in rulings that went against them, in lobbying efforts that they were ill-equipped to handle, and in whiny op-ed after whiny op-ed. All of that went nowhere, and Tribune shareholders who were promised the world were left holding the cliched bag. In 2006, impatient Tribune shareholders -- in particular, the extended family of former Los Angeles Times publisher Otis Chandler which held the second-largest block of Tribune stock -- revolted and demanded the ouster of Tribune CEO Dennis Fitzsimmons. The revolt succeeded: Fitzsimmons was out as Tribune owner and Chicago-area real estate tycoon Sam Zell was in as his replacement. (Interesting unrelated fact: Sam Zell's birthname was Samuel Zielonka -- his parents were emigres from Poland and his last name is derived from the Polish word for "green".)

Zell then badly mismanaged the Tribune to such an extent that it fell into bankruptcy -- the largest media bankruptcy in American history -- and stayed in bankruptcy for four years. Tribune exited bankruptcy and was divided into two companies -- Tribune Publishing which focused on print, and Tribune Media which focused on radio and television broadcast.

Each of those then got bought out by other companies. Tribune Media nearly got bought out by the infamous right-wing Sinclair Broadcast Group, until another grassroots revolt scuttled that attempt. Tribune Media then got bought out by Nexstar Media Group, which now stands as the largest TV station owner in the United States.

Tribune Publishing was bought out in 2021 by Alden Global Capital, a vulture capitalist fund that now ranks as the second-largest newspaper owner in America. Alden Global Capital has a notorious and well-deserved reputation of sucking the life out of newspapers -- firing staff, cutting costs, and gutting local coverage and investigative reporting. (Interesting unrelated fact: Alden Global Capital began with $20,000 of prize money won on a game show -- the 1968-1970 edition of the TV show Dream House.)

In recent years, the inside of the Chicago Tribune newspaper has been seeing lots of good trouble -- the first unionization drive in its history, and the first workers' strike in its history.

It's possible that the Chicago Tribune's fate may mimic that of another Alden-owned newspaper -- the Baltimore Sun, which in January 2024 was sold by Alden to, of all people, the Baltimore-based executive chair of Sinclair Broadcast Group, David Smith. It wouldn't surprise me if Alden cut a deal to sell the Chicago Tribune or its carcass to a rightwing billionaire jagoff like Ken Griffin -- currently the richest person in Illinois.

I've mentioned before that the grassroots activism at the right time, of which CMA played a part, resulted in the chain of events described here for the Tribune. But there's one component of all of this which I have, until now, never publicly disclosed.

In late 2006, I had received word from someone inside of the Tribune Corporation that there was a distinct possibility that the Tribune Corporation might approve an owner who wasn't local to Chicago. My informant told me that the board was weighing that as a possibility, and that this person thought the board needed to hear from someone in Chicago outside to the Tribune who was nevertheless knowledgeable on the matter of Tribune ownership.

My informant asked me to write an email, so I did. I wrote words to the effect: We know what's going on, we're watching you, and we think that a Chicago institution like Tribune should have a Chicago owner.

I like to think that what I wrote helped push the Tribune to go with Sam Zell as its owner, with the cascade of follow-up effects that ensued. I don't think I would have gotten that email if my source didn't think I would make a difference. I'll probably never know.

Even if it did help, it's not much to gloat about. Even if the board chose another owner, Tribune would probably still be in a predicament today. Journalism has been on a downward trajectory for decades, and what's been happening to the Tribune is but one facet among many, and a symptom of deeper problems. It is something which I have been devoting time and energy to addressing, and which merits further work and discussion -- including in this very newsletter.

DISCLAIMER: The opinions expressed on this website are those of the individual members of Chicago Media Action who authored them, and not necessarily those of the entire membership of Chicago Media Action, nor of Chicago Media Action as an organization.

FAIR USE NOTICE: This site contains copyrighted material the use of which has not always been specifically authorized by the copyright owner. We are making such material available in our efforts to advance understanding of environmental, political, human rights, economic, democracy, scientific, and social justice issues, etc. We believe this constitutes a 'fair use' of any such copyrighted material as provided for in section 107 of the US Copyright Law. In accordance with Title 17 U.S.C. Section 107, the material on this site is distributed without profit to those who have expressed a prior interest in receiving the included information for research and educational purposes. For more information go to: If you wish to use copyrighted material from this site for purposes of your own that go beyond 'fair use', you must obtain permission from the copyright owner.