New York (CNN Business)Chicago Tribune staffers on Thursday learned about a massive shakeup in its masthead through a series of morning emails. Editor-in-chief Bruce Dold and Managing Editor Peter Kendall were leaving. Colin McMahon, senior vice president and chief content officer at the newspaper’s parent company Tribune Publishing, would take over as editor in chief.
The departures of Dold and Kendall, who had been with the paper since 1990 and 1988, respectively, were shocking to the newsroom, according to staffers who attended an all-hands meeting on Thursday after the surprise emails went out. McMahon’s promotion was also not well-received by all.
When a Chicago Tribune staffer asked McMahon for the reason behind the change, McMahon replied, “I’m a lucky bastard so that’s why I’m standing here,” according to an audio recording of the meeting obtained and reviewed by CNN Business. “Why Peter and Bruce are leaving? I believe Peter’s phrase was restructuring.”
Indeed, in his memo to staffers, Kendall wrote, “After nearly 32 years in this exceptional and storied newsroom, I will be leaving the Tribune as part of a management restructuring.”
A Tribune Publishing spokesperson told CNN Business that the decision to restructure was made locally, “in Chicago,” and not by stakeholders in New York, where the company’s largest shareholder Alden Global Capital is based.
“Many people in the newsroom today appreciated Colin’s transparency and realistic assessment of the situation,” the spokesperson added.
The Chicago Tribune newsroom is no stranger to turmoil. Distrust of management at Tribune prompted staffers to unionize two years ago. When Alden Global Capital recently became became Tribune Publishing’s largest shareholder, the move created unease due to its reputation of cutting jobs to create short-term profits. Tribune Publishing also owns the Baltimore Sun, the Capital Gazette, the Hartford Courant and the New York Daily News among others. Tribune Publishing offered buyouts last month to employees who have worked for eight or more years. Earlier this month, Tribune CEO Tim Knight stepped down after just 12 months on the job.
Tribune Publishing reported third-quarter revenue of $236 million, down from $255.8 million in the year prior. Digital revenue is up 49.9%, and digital-only subscribers increased 38%, according to its earnings.
McMahon told staffers in the all-hands that the company is committed to growing subscriber numbers.
“Publicly people at this company have said a million digital subs across this whole company,” McMahon said. “That’s a lot. That’s a lot of people subscribing. I think that’s the goal. I think that’s a stretch goal. I think 130 [thousand] for us, we can do better than that.”
In a memo to staffers Thursday morning, McMahon emphasized using metrics and data to drive subscriptions.
“I’m committed to opening space for journalists to try new approaches and work with greater autonomy so long as those efforts are data-driven, measurable and contribute to our overall goals. This approach will not only serve the readers and the Chicago Tribune; it also will make the Tribune a more attractive and fulfilling place to work,” he wrote.
David Jackson, an investigative reporter at the Chicago Tribune, told CNN Business the shakeup was “a devastating shock and surprise.”
“Both Bruce Dold and Peter Kendall were in my opinion integral parts of every news report I published,” Jackson said. “Colin spoke to us for about an hour today, and he did not express any of the vision for this newspaper’s role in our city or our democracy that were the defining characteristics of Bruce Dold and Peter Kendall’s tenures.”
McMahon also dismissed a bid by Jackson and his colleague Gary Marx to seek local ownership, a plan that they detailed in a New York Times op-ed last month.
“I believe that the actual cost of buying and running the Chicago Tribune is extremely daunting even with people with a lot of money,” McMahon said. “I would say control what you can control, control what’s in front of you because wishing isn’t going to change whether somebody buys the Chicago Tribune.”
Three staffers told CNN Business they viewed McMahon as someone who would be complicit with Alden’s tactics. McMahon joined the Chicago Tribune in 1987, working as a local news reporter and then as a foreign correspondent. He returned to Chicago in 2007 as an editor. In 2017, he joined Tribune Publishing’s management team.
In a response to a staffer who expressed concerns about Alden’s so-called “playbook” of slashing staff and budget, McMahon laid out several scenarios, but ultimately said, “I don’t know what the budget is going to be.”
McMahon also said he did not believe they would be making many new hires.
“I don’t have an answer frankly and the answer, if I do have an answer, is probably not a good one. We have to look inside and figure out how to serve our audience with the resources we have. That doesn’t mean we’re never going to bring in talent,” McMahon said.
Another staffer told CNN Business that they were optimistic that things could improve under McMahon. To this staffer, the newsroom’s future depended on Alden’s plan for the company.
“The bottom line hope from the newsroom is [if Alden] is indeed interested in investing in the future and this isn’t just a move to cut for the future. We want the best for the Tribune, best for company, best for readers and the way to do that is investing,” the staffer said. “The bottom line is we don’t know which way it will go.”
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