Lots of "low-hanging fruit" to pick at Tribune


Sam Zell and Randy Michaels hit the conference call wires yesterday afternoon in what they said was the first of many such sessions to keep interested parties in the loop regarding progress at the troubled, newly-private company (full Q1 financials are expected in mid-May). Newspaper was said to be surprisingly weak, led by serious reversals in classified revenue, but broadcasting assets were said to be ahead of projections and ahead of peers.

Zell said the first 90 days under the new administration has been all about changing the culture at the company to a faster and leaner profile. He has personally received and answered over three thousand emails from employees, and another two thousand have be received under a newly-established employee suggestion project, many of which, he said, have earnings potential.

Although the original plan was to keep the company intact, Zell said the surprisingly challenging conditions may force spins. It is looking to get a deal for the Chicago Cubs done this year. It has received many expressions of interest in acquiring Long Island NY property Newsday, but Trib is still in the process of deciding if it wants to sell, much less what kind of offer it would accept.

It’s all part of the plan to ditch the management-heavy top-down approach of the prior administration, to one that relies on local emphasis, local control, and local accountability.

Michaels said there are easy gains — "low-hanging fruit" — available almost everywhere he looks, despite the bad economy and challenging competitive conditions. Sales, for example, have been salary-heavy. He’s turning to a commission/incentive based system big on employee initiative and reward. Included in that is publicity for top sellers — and top customers. New ideas, particularly on the newspaper side, are being tested in six smaller newspapers, with the Allentown offering already doing sales on a 100% commission basis.

According to Michaels, incentive is everything. He’s not concerned with making budget, he’s concerned with making more. Even if Tribune hits budget, it will still want more. So he wants each sales person to have a reason to make that last 4PM call.

Tribune’s television stations are putting a new emphasis on local news, especially Fox affiliates, which are making an effort to compete with ABC, CBS and NBC outlets for local news dominance.

Overall, the company is merging newspaper, print, cable and interactive operations. It will focus on eliminating duplication and waste while improving content and sales efforts wherever and however possible.

RBR/TVBR observation: You do have to wonder if Zell and Michaels will reprise their involvement in radio, which led to the creation of Jacor many years ago, especially with all the Clear Channel talent being imported by Tribune these days.