Itinerants Vs. Journeymen

New York Times columnist Andrew Ross Suskin's analysis Tuesday of the Tribune  Co. debacle has been in the back of my mind all week — particularly a paragraph where he mentions all  the booty that the former chairman of the company took home.

The question I couldn't shake was: What skin did this man, Dennis J. FitzSimons, have in the game? I went back to the column to review the details. Here's what Sorkin wrote:

It was Tribune’s board that sold the company to Mr. Zell — and allowed him to use the employee’s pension plan to do so. Despite early resistance, Dennis J. FitzSimons, then the company’s chief executive, backed the plan. He was paid about $17.7 million in severance and other payments. The sale also bought all the shares he owned — $23.8 million worth. The day he left, he said in a note to employees that “completing this ‘going private’ transaction is a great outcome for our shareholders, employees and customers.”

Here's what I learned at FitzSimons is a sales guy. A television guy. A Queens guy. He started his career on Wall St. in the early Seventies, took a job as a media buyer at Grey when he got laid off during a recession, then he followed the money to the media-selling side for several companies in several locales before landing the top sales post at the Tribune Co.'s WGN-TV in Chicago. After that, it was a steady rise to the top though various administrative posts. Most were in Chicago, but he also took a side trip to run a Tribune station in New Orleans.

FitzSimons is portrayed as "unflappable" and a gent's gent and a hard worker, and I'm sure that's true. I've no doubt that if I met him at the country club I'd be telling people that he's a "helluva guy," as my father would say. And who among us, in FitzSimons' position, wouldn't have done what he did? You don't see me wagging my arm in the air (although I'll be the first to tell you that I'd never get to that position).

What FitzSimons was not was a newspaper guy. An editor. Or a native of the city where the flagship newspaper, the Chicago Tribune, resided. 

That takes us to the next couple of grafs from the unpublished essay I was writing for NewsInc magazine in 1990.

"A powerful class of itinerant professional vandals is now pillaging the country and laying it waste," the poet and essayist Wendall Berry wrote some time ago. "The members of this prestigious class of rampaging professionals are the purest sort of careerists  — "upwardly mobile" transients who will permit no stay or place to interrupt their personal advance. They must have no local allegiances; they must not have a local point of view."

Berry's immediate targets were some quasi-governmental bureaucrats who were proposing to build a nuclear power plant near his hometown. But are transient newspaper editors and publishers who hopscotch from one group-owned paper to another really any different? There have always been journeyman reporters, just as there were vagabond printers. But any paper that ever made a ripple in a city almost invariably was started or nurtured by working journalists who settled in the community. 

FitzSimons seems to be the quintessential "itinerant professional vandal," as Wendall Berry would have it. Journeymen are itinerant and professional, as well, but they are not upwardly mobile and they do not leave their places of employment in shambles at their own gain. 

When I was writing the above paragraphs in 1990, I intended to applaud the boosterism of local papers when they were own by local editors who had a stake in the community. Not coincidentally, my family came to mind. But now that I think of it, 18 years later in 2008, my grandfather and his brothers were really smack-dab in the middle of the great transition of American journalism from Main St. to Wall St.

From about 1904 through 1912, T. Harold "Spider" Forbes and his eventual wife, Carrie Bowman (born Caroline Borhman) trod the boards as supporting-cast members in Broadway musicals and as a song-and-dance team in vaudeville theaters. But Harold contracted tuberculosis and had to retire from the stage. He did so well consolidating three daily and seven weekly newspapers in Westchester County following the First World War that by the time of the Great Crash of 1929, he was a millionaire living in a mansion he built up the street from the Larchmont Yacht Club. 

Still, my grandfather was a second-generation newspaperman, with four brothers and two sisters in the trade. And, to the point, he was born and bred in New Rochelle, N.Y., where he went to work every day in a building he built after buying one daily from his brother and, a few years later, another daily from his main competitor. He was local boy made good.

I'm going to think on this a while and get back to me.

    Copyright © 2006 - 2017 Thom Forbes, all rights reserved.