Staff at Baltimore Sun Presses Tribune CEO

By Frank Ahrens
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, September 27, 2006

Dennis FitzSimons, chairman of the embattled Tribune Co. media giant, met employees of the Baltimore Sun yesterday and faced some tough questioning.

Anxiety has pervaded the paper's newsroom in recent weeks, as the situation at its parent company has deteriorated following a boardroom revolt. Pressed by three directors unhappy with the company's slumping stock price, the Tribune board last week formed a committee to examine restructuring and divestiture options for the company's 11 newspapers and 26 television stations.

FitzSimons met with the staff for about 90 minutes yesterday, spending about an hour answering questions, according to Sun staff members who attended the meeting but spoke on the condition of anonymity for fear of retribution.

Sun staffers are worried about editorial cutbacks: The paper's three remaining foreign bureaus -- once the pride of the paper -- are set to be shuttered by the end of next year, with the chain's papers all relying on foreign reporting by Los Angeles Times and Chicago Tribune correspondents, FitzSimons said.

He told staffers that any manager dealing with a business that has declining revenue, as the Sun has, would first target duplications for elimination. Where reporters and editors see a benefit in several Tribune papers maintaining bureaus in the same foreign city, management sees redundancy.

Pressed about the editorial content of the papers, FitzSimons said responsibility falls on Scott Smith, Tribune's president of publishing, a position FitzSimons said is "one pay grade below" him, staffers said.

"We're glad the meeting happened," said longtime Sun reporter Michael Hill, head of the paper's unit of the Washington-Baltimore Newspaper Guild. "This is a time of great uncertainty at the paper, and it's good to discuss that. Not that this allayed any uncertainty."

Witnesses said that FitzSimons had a conversational tone and even cracked a couple of jokes that went over surprisingly well, despite at least one staffer suggesting that the company sell the Chicago Cubs instead of its newspapers and television stations. FitzSimons responded by noting how much the value of the Cubs franchise has grown in recent years.

At the end of the meeting, FitzSimons was handed a letter signed by more than 100 of the newsroom's approximately 350 staffers, saying the Sun newsroom stands with its colleagues at the Los Angeles Times, where editor Dean Baquet has balked at company orders to cut more staff members.

The letter also chastised FitzSimons for readying "replacement workers" from other Tribune papers to take over the Sun's newsroom when workers threatened a strike in 2003. The current contract expires next summer.

"We ask that Tribune treat those of us who work here with the respect we deserve and make sure that the Sun has the resources it needs to maintain the quality that has allowed it to thrive," the letter read. "Either that, or sell the Sun to someone who will."

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