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Tuesday, February 07, 2006

Hey Dennis, You're Still the Best CEO In My Book

Tribune Co. CEO Dennis FitzSimons sure is touchy. Former Chicago Tribune reporter Geoff Dougherty lays out the reason he quit the Trib last year to found the Chicago Daily News (now unfortunately known, due to trademark crap, as the Chitown Daily News): The annual ranking he was working on of the worst CEOs in Chicago when you compare company performance to executive pay was spiked for no apparent reason. Oh, and the second-worst CEO he came up with was FitzSimons:
And then, 36 hours before the article was to appear, it was killed. Tribune editors ducked questions about why they hadn’t run the article, and declined to schedule it for publication.

As a member of the Trib's investigative reporting team, I'd often been in the position of demanding answers from public and corporate officials about their conduct. When it became apparent to me, after months of evasive corporate-speak on the FitzSimons article, that the Tribune wasn't willing to subject itself to the same kind of scrutiny, I resigned.

The story that FitzSimons--or, more likely, an irrational and generalized fear of FitzSimon's reaction on the part of Dougherty's editors--killed can be found here on Chitown Daily News.

The funny thing is, five years ago, when John Madigan was the CEO of Tribune Co., the Trib did the same annual ranking. And guess what it found:
In the rankings for 2000, the lowest rated CEO was John Madigan, chief executive of Tribune Co., parent of Chicago Tribune Co. Tribune Co. completed an $8 billion acquisition of Times Mirror Co. last year.

Madigan saw his cash compensation rise 45 percent, to $4.0 million, while the company's total return to shareholders declined 22 percent in 2000.
I happened to be interviewing at the Trib for a media beat job--which I didn't get--right after that story came out in April 2001. I remember asking about what kind of corporate pressures media reporters are under at the Trib, with all its holdings, and the editor I interviewed with brought up Madigan's furious response to that story as an example. Looks like FitzSimons found a more convenient way to deal with the problem--head it off at the pass, so to speak.

I also remember that when the Tribune hired a media beat reporter two years ago in the New York bureau, after ignoring the beat for years despite numerous protests from me and others, the explanation from the business desk was this: They didn't hire a reporter in New York because they wanted more coverage of the media business. They hired a reporter in New York because they wanted the rage coming from the executive suite every time the Trib wrote about media consolidation or circulation scandals at Newsday to be directed to the New York bureau, rather than the Trib newsroom. In other words, it gave Trib editors an out when they were stuck in the elevator with a red-faced FitzSimons: "Talk to New York."

[Via Romenesko]