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‘Deal From Hell’ blames moguls for downfall of newspapers

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By James O’Shea

PublicAffairs, 416 pages, $28.99

Updated: May 9, 2012 9:37AM

It is old news that lots of American newspapers are suffering financially. Even USA Today, with its national base and impressive circulation, has undergone newsroom cutbacks.

Perhaps the most spectacular and depressing decline has occurred at the Tribune Co., based in Chicago, parent of the Chicago Tribune and Los Angeles Times, among other major metropolitan daily newspapers.

James O’Shea occupied a privileged, and unusual, seat during the implosion. In The Deal From Hell: How Moguls and Wall Street Plundered Great American Newspapers, O’Shea shares what he saw and heard.

O’Shea is an accomplished investigative reporter who rose from a humble adolescence in St. Louis to editing positions at the Des Moines Register, Chicago Tribune and, eventually, the top newsroom position at the Los Angeles Times. (Disclosure: O’Shea and I worked together at the Des Moines Register from 1976-1978.)

When he left the Los Angeles Times under duress from management three years ago, he was in his 60s, well compensated and the owner of an impressive resume, including two investigative books. It would have been easy for O’Shea, and perhaps wise from a self-preservation standpoint, to retire quietly. Instead, he has written an expose of the corporation to which he devoted 30 years of his career.

The book’s subtitle uses the phrase “corporate moguls” as a plural. Most of the book, though, is devoted to the few moguls who ran the Tribune Co. until selling to Sam Zell, often termed a “real-estate billionaire,” earlier this century.

The pre-Zell moguls are portrayed as complex human beings, but ultimately men who placed personal financial gain and corporate profits for shareholders above news gathering without fear or favor. Yet those moguls are nothing compared with Zell, who is portrayed as a profane jerk with no feel for the public interest and no obvious redeeming qualities as a human being.

The big-picture exposes about the declining newspaper industry have been published ad nauseam. The central theme often sounds something like this: Family-owned newspapers in the golden days cared about their public service mission, so spent more on news gathering than absolutely necessary to retain readers. Many of those families, however, sold their newspapers to corporate interests that were stockholder-owned, and thus distressingly bottom-line oriented.

The O’Shea version contains all of those elements. His book stands out, though, because of its unforgettable details about what happened to diminish great journalism at the Chicago Tribune and Los Angeles Times. The more general indictments about the newspaper industry seem like weak gruel in comparison.

O’Shea concedes in the preface that his biases will play into the narrative. Occasionally, the narrative carries a whiff of score settling, and that can feel unsettling. But because O’Shea is a first-rate reporter, when he indicts individuals he almost always provides so much damning detail that readers are quite likely to conclude “guilty as charged.”

As he gazes into the future, O’Shea is not the first to ask, nor will he be the last to ask, whether newspapers can remain financially viable. He feels certain that newspapers will continue to exist, in hard copy and/or online. The more vital question, he says, is “will we still have journalism — not aggregated content gathered to foster ad sales, but hard-hitting, time-consuming investigative and analytical reporting about the major issues of the day?”

Gannett News Service

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