Tuesday, January 23, 2007

Post-Murdoch stress syndrome

Rupert Murdoch’s potential interest in the parent company sent an epic shudder through the newsroom of the Chicago Tribune, where many friends and colleagues took refuge after he bought the Sun-Times in 1984.

More than 60 Sun-Times staffers departed shortly after News Corp. bought the tabloid for $90 million and installed a new publisher, who also doubled as Mr. Murdoch's personal baggage handler, and a pair of snarky Fleet Street editors.

Only days after asking me to help them locate Chicago on a map of the United States, the new editors began replacing the paper’s vigorous and thoughtful coverage with such fare as a bold, red, page-one screamer proclaiming, “Men Can Have Babies, Too!”

When voluntary buyouts became available, there was no shortage of takers.

The highest-profile staffer to depart for the Tribune was the legendary columnist Mike Royko, who quipped, “No self-respecting fish would be wrapped in a Murdoch paper.”

(One of the lowest-profile participants in the Diaspora was yours truly, who exited without a well-wrought plan in mind but landed serendipitously in San Francisco.)

Today, the Tribune newsroom continues to be well stocked with a number of talented Sun-Times refugees, including several occupying senior positions throughout the operation.

Although initial reports say News Corp. is intersted only in ways non-editorial operations can be combined to save money at its New York Post and Tribune's Newsday, there's fear that there could be more to the story than that.

After weak initial interest in the Tribune auction, the low prices of its high-quality print and broadcast properties represent a potentially tantalizing bargain to any savvy global media titan.

There are reasons to doubt News Corp. would be interested in taking on Tribune, but it's understandable that something more than the 20-degree breezes on Michigan Avenue are sending shivers through Tribune Tower.

Those who saw the original movie at the Sun-Times would not be looking forward to a sequel.


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