Tribune's Randy Michaels; Digital Post-Mortem


Randy Michaels had a plan. The former chief of Tribune would convert the stumbling newspaper and broadcast giant into a media and marketing company. A company that just so happened to own printing presses and broadcast towers. And the only way to accomplish this, was to first transform the company’s deeply rooted and stodgy culture. They had to think and act differently if they were to beat back the local threat of AOL, Google and other online pure-plays. Randy knew that digital would play a major role in this transformation, much like it did in previous makeovers the ex-DJ spearheaded in his past.

The attempted Trib-culture makeover had mixed results. Some, like embedding radio vets into the ranks certainly ruffled feathers. Many of these so-called ‘Randy hires’ are no longer with the company; Lee Abrams, Marc Chase, Jeff ‘Booger’ Kapugi, Kim Johnson, and John Martin. Other new-culture infusions went over a bit better: removal of redundant positions and activities, hybrid sales teams and smarter newspaper production techniques.

Like him or not for some of the recent accusations, Randy has an enviable track record of smartly using digital tech for innovation in media. His early work with radio voice-tracking around 1996, (ex: seasoned DJ in Miami being pumped into Peoria) was hated by 3rd tier on-air talent that were quickly canned by these so-called robo-jocks. But station management and investors loved this cost-cutting tool. Cash-strapped managers saw voice-tracking as a simple and affordable way to have major market talent on their small market stations. The quick expansion of NYC based Howard Stern affiliates is another example of how operators like Infinity/CBS and Mel Karmazin leveraged emerging technology.

Michael’s take over of Tribune with financier Sam Zell shows similar digital thinking and strategy being applied to the Chicago based company. Take a look at this 5 minute video clip (from almost 2 years ago) that highlights a speech given to employees of The Morning Call, Trib’s print operation just outside of Philadelphia. After all this time, the talk is still accurate and relevant. Unfortunately, some of what Randy wanted the staff to embrace and execute either fell on deaf ears, or was sloppily executed at the local level.

–Mel Taylor
Online Revenue Strategy & Training for Hyper-Local Media