CHICAGO — The Tribune Company accepted the resignation of its chief executive Friday after media reports portrayed its leadership as encouraging a fraternity-party atmosphere even as the troubled company struggles to emerge from bankruptcy. Tribune, which owns the Chicago Tribune, the Los Angeles Times, and the Baltimore Sun among several newspaper holdings, as well as 23 television stations, appointed a five-person executive council to assume CEO Randy Michaels’ duties.
Michaels filed his resignation Friday, a decision that was cheered by newsroom staffers who said his outlandish behavior and questionable journalism credentials diminished the credibility of the Chicago Tribune and was emblematic of company leadership that proved rudderless in helping steer it back from bankruptcy.
In a statement, Tribune Board Chairman Sam Zell said the “appointments are designed to ensure a smooth, seamless transition of management responsibilities to a group of experienced executives who have a strong understanding of the company’s media businesses.”
The Michaels resignation is the second at the company in two weeks; Lee Abrams, the chief innovation officer, resigned Oct. 15 after distributing a sexually charged memo to the entire company.
The sexist culture at Tribune came to light earlier this month in a front-page article in the New York Times that described several instances of “frat house” behavior that included raucous poker parties and sexual behavior conducted after hours in the executive offices, the use of profanity by its top executives in memos and in conversation, and women who were routinely targets of sexual harassment.
Former newsroom staffers also complained that the new executives were blurring the line between editorial and advertising, which was contributing to the growing public perception that the company’s storied journalism history was being permanently soiled.
“They threw out what Tribune had stood for, quality journalism and a real brand integrity, and in just a year, pushed it down into mud and bankruptcy,” Ken Doctor, a newspaper analyst with consulting firm Outsell Inc., told the Times.
The behavior was considered particularly harmful as it took place during a troubling time at Tribune. Soon after Mr. Zell bought the company in January 2008, it fell into what became the biggest bankruptcy for a US media company. The Times company lists $7.5 billion in assets against a $13 billion debt.
Despite the bracing odds, the company reportedly awarded top managers $57.3 million in bonuses while slashing 4,200 jobs, including many of the newsroom’s senior writers and editors.
Confidence in the newsroom further diminished after the management team assembled under Zell came from the radio business, not journalism. Michaels, a former shock jock and executive at Clear Channel Communications, was emboldened to hire friends and former co-workers to join him at Tribune to fill over 20 positions. Abrams, for example, last worked at XM Radio.
According to many of the remaining editorial staffers, the Michaels resignation is seen as an opportunity to reclaim the Tribune brand and remind readers what it once stood for.
“Though it appears to the rank and file in the newsroom that Randy, Lee and the boys attempted to destroy and desecrate the place, there are a lot of great journalists here still doing great work,” Bruce Japsen, the Chicago Tribune health care reporter told the New York Times.