The day that had been speculated about for a good decade has finally come: Gannett newspapers, the behemoth of the print world, is making a play for Tribune Publishing.
The South Florida implication of this is huge: The Sun Sentinel, which somehow employed me from 1985 to 2015, could be yet another feeder publication for this national network of more than 100 papers that Gannett has been gathering. Excuse my poker reference here: I see Gannett as Phil Ivey, hungrily collecting all the chips from everyone else at the table, which World Poker Tour broadcaster Mike Sexton refers to as “limping gazelles.”
Since leaving the Sun Sentinel in November 2015 and becoming gambling columnist for the Miami Herald in January, I have not once backtracked and referred to the Fort Lauderdale paper as “We.” I’ve not yearned to cover a single event, not even Garth Brooks concerts. But today it is “we” again. So much downtime in that newsroom, like any other, was spent discussing the newspaper’s direction.
What did Poynter write about us?
What adjustments are being made in the dying industry of print journalism?
This is what — the fifth time we are now emphasizing video training?
Twice before, major acquisition news was met with excitement in the Sun Sentinel newsroom, and both times that excitement was unwarranted. In 2000, the Tribune offices in Chicago announced the purchase of the Los Angeles Times, a wonderful place for journalism but an albatross to our bottom line. (One manager cleverly sold much of his Tribune stock the day of that announcement. Had Mrs. Sortal and I done the same, we would not have lost $200,000.)
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Then came Sam Zell, our perceived savior. He was going to upend those haughty folks in Tribune Tower.
“This is the guy who got us 34 bucks a share,” Publisher Howard Greenberg said in 2007, upon introducing him to employees here. Well, Zell took us into bankruptcy, and a lawsuit over fraudulent conveyance of stock prices lingers.
This one feels different right at the start. Even though I no longer have skin in the game (presuming they don’t mess with my health insurance or the final eight months of my severance), I feel bad for everyone still there, from Morning News Editor Doug Phillips, who arrives before sunup, to Jeremy Lang and the night desk gang, the final people to push the buttons. Heck, I even feel bad for the people there I didn’t particularly like.
However, I want those who don’t work at a newspaper to understand: Everyone knows they’re part of a sinking ship. The buyouts started at the Sun Sentinel around 2003, and I lost count of rounds of layoffs at seven. I don’t blame management, and I don’t blame my former coworkers. I knew as far back as 1983 we were dying, when, six months after arriving at my dream of the St. Louis Globe-Democrat, Publisher Duncan Bauman gathered us and said, “I’m afraid I have some very distressing news.” Somehow, I dodged the klieg lights of layoffs to leave when I wanted, 33 years later.
Those still standing at the Sun Sentinel — and the Palm Beach Post and the Miami Herald (which just took four more voluntary buyouts) — are clearly doing so because they love it. They love coming to work each day, exploring the world through whatever lens God blessed them with and then sharing it with the rest of us. It’s always been a great gig, and as one former publisher told me, “It sure beats working.” Here’s hoping as many as possible can continue doing so after Gannett has speared our local limping gazelle.