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The Tribune Company is a Chicago-based media company, the United States’ second-largest newspaper publisher.

The Tribune owns 11 daily newspapers, including its flagship, the Chicago Tribune, and the Los Angeles Times, Baltimore Sun and Hartford Courant. It also owns 42 television stations, along with the cable network WGN and the digital music company Gracenote, which it bought in 2014. In 2013, it announced it would split off its publishing properties from its broadcasting properties, spinning its newspapers into the Tribune Publishing Company and retaining the broadcasting assets as part of the Tribune Co., though some expressed concern that such an arrangement would threaten the papers’ survival. The split is expected to be completed in mid-2014. Tribune Publishing would carry at least $325 million in debt going into its split.

The company was born in 1847 with the launch of the Chicago Tribune and went public in 1983. The Tribune doubled its size in 2000 by buying the Times Mirror Co., which published the Los Angeles Times and Newsday.

Real estate magnate Sam Zell took control of the Tribune in 2007, making it private in an $8.2 billion deal that Zell later said he regretted. Zell quickly drew attention for his fiery personality and harsh style: Under Zell, the Tribune sold off Newsday in 2008 to pay off debt and made deep staff cuts at several of its papers, running out several newspaper executives when they refused to comply. Zell’s leadership was heavily criticized in the light of those moves and the company’s struggles.

The company began posting losses in 2008 and filed for bankruptcy later that year, the first major newspaper company to go bankrupt in more than 70 years. The paper emerged from bankruptcy on the last day of 2012 under the ownership of various creditors led by the Los Angeles hedge fund Oaktree Capital Management. The Tribune sold off majority ownership of the Chicago Cubs as part of bankruptcy proceedings in 2009. As it prepared to exit bankruptcy in July 2012, documents filed earlier that year indicated it planned to spin off many of its newspaper and broadcast units into separate subsidiaries, and it was reported in early 2013 to have hired bankers to sell its papers. Reportedly interested buyers included Rupert Murdoch’s News Corp. and the conservative billionaire brothers Charles and David Koch, though the latter backed out of the process. The Tribune announced a plan in late 2013 to cut 700 jobs across the company.

In 2008, Zell hired former XM Radio executive Lee Abrams as the company’s chief innovation officer. Abrams helped engineer several redesigns at the Tribune’s papers, though his breathless memos drew criticism in journalism circles.

The Tribune Co. gave the Associated Press notice in 2008 that it would drop the wire service in 2010, though it did not finally drop the AP until January 2013. The Los Angeles Times retains a contract with the AP.

The company has emphasized search engine optimization, with about 80 employees devoted to it and plans to stop duplicate content.

The Tribune Co. has a digital innovation unit based in Palo Alto, California, and Bangalore called Tribune Digital Ventures, which bought the digital program guide What’s On in 2014. In early 2014, it launched an app that reads audio versions of textual news stories. At the time of the app’s launch, Tribune Digital Ventures had 50 employees, plus 350 from Gracenote.

In 2011, the Tribune Company was reported to be developing a tablet (which never materialized) which might be given to newspaper subscribers for free or cheap.

The Tribune began putting up online paywalls in 2011, starting with the Baltimore Sun. By October 2012, the Hartford Courant was the only Tribune paper without an online paywall.

In October 2010 the upper management of the Tribune Company came under fire after a New York Times report depicted a toxic working culture that started at the top with Randy Michaels, Tribune’s chief executive. David Carr, reporting for the Times, wrote: “Tribune Tower, the architectural symbol of the staid company, came to resemble a frat house, complete with poker parties, juke boxes and pervasive sex talk.” It was shortly after that Abrams resigned from the company after sending a companywide memo deemed to be inappropriate. Within a matter days the Tribune board also accepted the resignation of Michaels.

In November 2010 the company’s creditors sued Zell and the banks that financed the sale of Tribune, accusing them of making the $8.2 billion deal while knowing it would lead to bankruptcy.

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Primary author: Mark Coddington. Main text last updated: July 10, 2014.
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