Does Union-Tribune face a digital dearth?

Bond-rater jumps on L.A. Times and U-T parent for missing online boat

When a paper was a paper — San Diego Union building, c.1870
  • When a paper was a paper — San Diego Union building, c.1870

It may be regarded by some as piling on, but Moody's Investors Service, the Wall Street debt-rating outfit, has come out with the latest hit against Tribune Publishing, parent company of the San Diego Union-Tribune.

New York Times HQ

New York Times HQ

"The New York Times (B1 stable) has achieved a stronger footing in the digital space than Tribune Publishing (B1 negative), giving it a significant advantage over its biggest competitor," says a September 29 news release touting Moody’s latest subscriber-only report, "New York Times and Tribune Publishing: Peer Comparison — Digital Readiness Makes New York Times Stronger."

"While The New York Times and Tribune Publishing have similar credit quality, The New York Times has taken greater advantage of the growing digital space and continues to make strategic investments to bolster its digital advertising and digital subscriber base," the release quoted Alina Khavulya, a Moody's vice president and senior analyst, as saying.

"Tribune Publishing has not made the equivalent strides either in digital ad growth or digital subscription."

Austin Beutner

Austin Beutner

Jack Griffin

Jack Griffin

The latest blow comes amid a tirade of attacks against Tribune CEO Jack Griffin following his September 8 firing of ex–Wall Streeter Austin Beutner as publisher of the Los Angeles Times and San Diego Union-Tribune.

Beutner's let-go was accompanied by stories of insider intrigue at the corporation involving a putative takeover of the Times and U-T by Beutner ally L.A. Democratic billionaire Eli Broad, a major money player in Democratic and charter school politics.

Following Beutner’s firing, Broad and a chorus of others began to call for Griffin to hire an L.A. local to run the Times or sell the Southern California news operation to an Angeleno, leading to questions about whether at least some of the protests had somehow been orchestrated.

Griffin himself may have focused unwanted attention on Tribune's digital shortcomings by telling Crain's Chicago Business on September 25 that news on real paper has some advantages to the online kind.

Chicago Tribune building

Chicago Tribune building

“I could be wrong, but I don't think that this entirely goes away," Griffin told Crain’s while holding up a physical copy of the Chicago Tribune.

According to Crain’s, Griffin said, “I use these all the time,” touching a smartphone and iPad nearby. “But I use them to find stuff that I’m looking for, and I read the paper to find out things I don’t know.”

Griffin admitted the company is still in digital "catch-up" mode, saying, "It's a bit of a maelstrom."

His remarks caused a subsequent online stir, with re/code reporting September 28 that Tribune had issued a follow-up statement saying, "Jack was referring to newspapers broadly in all of their manifestations, from print to desktop to mobile, and the different experiences that each platform offers consumers.”

According to Tribune's online job site, the U-T is currently seeking to hire a "multi-media" advertising account executive.

"We need talented and motivated digital sellers to be at the forefront of our digital sales initiatives," says the notice.

The company seeks a person who is "a change agent," able to "see ‘ambiguity’ as an opportunity as opposed to a hurdle," and the ability to "thrive on challenging yourself to push beyond conventional thinking."

Meanwhile, feared staff cuts across the Tribune chain have yet to materialize, with LAObserved reporting September 28 that L.A. Times buyout offers won’t come until next week at the earliest.

At market close September 29, Tribune stock had dropped to 7.69, a new all-time low.

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Their job notice terminology of "change agent" and saying they need someone who loves "ambiguity" is pretty funny. Somehow, I think there are better words than "ambiguity" to describe what's happening and it's not a happy situation.

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