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Oct. 5, 2018, 9:51 a.m.
Business Models

Requiem for a Tronc

A bad name stumbles into the sunset.

On June 2, 2016, Tribune Publishing — what was at the time the newly spun-off newspaper half of what had for more than a century been known as the Tribune Company — announced it was changing its name. To…tronc. A name that managed to violate both the rules of English capitalization and the aesthetic sensibilities of anyone who likes to speak words aloud. Our Ken Doctor wrote a piece about the change, to which I added this editor’s note:

Editor’s note: Because we do not hate our readers, Nieman Lab style from here on out will be a capitalized Tronc, no matter what the company insists — just as we have long killed the exclamation point in Yahoo and refused to render “Politico” in all caps, and just as we sliced out the old slash in Recode before that company came around to the same idea.

We weren’t alone; even Tronc’s own Chicago Tribune went with an uppercase T from the start. The mockery was instant — beyond the word’s infelicity, it felt like a bunch of non-newspaper guys tossing aside a storied brand just because they could. That their new visual evocation of “digital” was more 1980s Tron than 2010s Twitter only furthered the idea that management was in over its head.

Then there was the video. That didn’t help.

(“The best satire is indistinguishable from the subject matter it addresses. And sometimes the subject matter is indistinguishable from satire. For the foreseeable future, the absurd rebranding of tronc and this astonishing video will exemplify the latter.” “We’re still not convinced these Tronc branding videos aren’t Adult Swim parodies.” “Translation: Tronc is more than just an ill-advised rebranding — it’s also an ill-advised reorganization.” “Yes, Tronc shall take the corn feed of journalism and funnel it into the optimization-group goose, to make delicious foie gras that will be consumed by the digital natives.”)

Tronc’s history since then has been defined by two things — cost-cutting and revenue extraction by executives. The company made little serious effort to build a digital-savvy company worthy of its rhetoric; chairman Michael Ferro alienated the overwhelming share of those at the company whose hiring he wasn’t directly responsible for. Tronc acquired the New York Daily News and promptly shredded its newsroom. It managed to offload its biggest property, the Los Angeles Times, to a billionaire who was willing to pay too much just to get his hometown paper out of Tronc’s clutches. (“I overpaid,” Patrick Soon-Shiong said earlier this week. “It wasn’t the money. It wasn’t the business. It was, ‘Do we want this paper to exist or not?'”) Tronc even managed to squeeze in a #metoo moment or two — a time-is-a-flat-circle echo of terrible owners past.

Tronc’s managers, in truth, were far more interested in newspapers as a financial asset — cashflow-producing widgets to be milked until dry — than as anything approaching a civically useful institution. Talk of late has been about another sale — maybe to an “alternative investment” fund looking to make a short-term buck, maybe to some combination of McClatchy and Soon-Shiong — that would give the players a final profitable exit.

But yesterday we found out that awful word would be making an exit even before the moneymen. Tronc was changing its name back to Tribune Publishing. Fittingly, the company that tried to position itself as leaders for the brave digital future announced the change on its busted website, where press releases have been formatted incorrectly as long as it has existed. Maybe before they fixed journalism, they could have learned how to make a website?

The press release didn’t bother to give any reason for the change. In a statement, a spokesperson said it was “a nod to our roots, and a reinforcement of the journalistic foundation on which all of our news brands stand.”

CEO Justin Dearborn, Michael Ferro’s handpicked man, didn’t add much more in a memo to staff. Amusingly, he couldn’t even bring himself to mention the word “Tronc” in it — just “the parent company name.”

POSTED     Oct. 5, 2018, 9:51 a.m.
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