Michael Ferro, a human spigot of poorly conceived ideas, announced on Monday that he’s stepping down as chairman of tronc (formerly Tribune) after two terrible and incompetent years running the storied newspaper publisher.
Ferro is tronc’s largest shareholder. His departure from the company’s board coincides with its $500 million sale of the flagship Los Angeles Times, which is set to close in the coming months. He will be replaced by his longtime associate Justin Dearborn, who is also tronc’s CEO. Dearborn had no media experience before assuming CEO duties in 2016.
“[Ferro] retires having created considerable shareholder value for the company in just two years as chairman of the board,” Dearborn said in a statement.
That’s true, somehow, despite Ferro’s failure to implement any comprehensible strategy for turning tronc’s famous newspapers into anything resembling a sustainable media business. He assumed leadership of Tribune Publishing in early 2016, talking a big game about morphing the chain into a global entertainment empire complete with new bureaus in India, Nigeria, and elsewhere. He free-associated about using artificial intelligence and machine learning to turn the company into an industrial-scale video producer. And he ditched a well-established brand name, which is associated with many prestigious publications, for the dystopian-sounding “tronc.”
Ferro’s reign of terror reached its possible apogee at the Los Angeles Times, where, last fall, tronc installed an editor, Lewis D’Vorkin, who was best known for creating an unpaid contributor network at Forbes. D’Vorkin lost the trust of staff almost instantly with his habit of sharing stupid journalism mantras like “video equals mobile equals social.” Tronc then waged a cartoonish anti-union campaign against the Times newsroom just as Ferro was looking at plans to turn a new office space into his personal playground, and as tronc inked a three-year, $15 million deal with his consulting firm for “certain management expertise.” Billionaire Angeleno Patrick Soon-Shiong eventually stepped in to free the historic newspaper from the prison of tronc’s mismanagement.
Now, Ferro may be gone, but his grand vision for “shareholder value” continues at tronc’s other papers with a digital strategy sold with the appropriately ludicrous nickname, “gravitas with scale.” In the real world, things are continuing as normal. Last Thursday, the Chicago Tribune laid off an unknown number of staffers, and NPR’s David Folkenflik reported today that the ensuing digital transformation might require reporters to re-apply for their jobs in what he described as a “tronc Hunger Games.” Meanwhile, SEC filings filed last week showed that tronc executives had recently been awarded raises.
So a tip of the cap today to Ferro, who will soldier on through 2020 with $5 million annually to his consulting firm while tronc’s journalists grapple with the path of destruction he wrought. Nice work if you can get it.
Update, 4:22 p.m.: Ferro’s candidacy for worst media boss has been retroactively bumped up the rankings. On Monday afternoon, Fortune reported on-the-record accounts by two women who say that the investor forced himself on them in late-night meetings scheduled under the pretense of doing business. Fortune’s Kristen Bellstrom and Beth Kowitt write:
Fortune reached out to Ferro last week with the details of both women’s accounts. Through a spokesman, he declined to be interviewed and did not address or dispute any of the specific allegations made by [Kathryn] Minshew and [Hagan] Kappler or others in this story.
Today Ferro’s spokesman provided this statement to Fortune: “Over more than 20 years of leading public companies and other enterprises, Michael Ferro has never had a claim filed against him nor a settlement made on his behalf. Your on-the-record allegations appear to involve private conduct with private individuals who were not employees of tronc or any other company he ran. As recently announced, Mr. Ferro has retired back to private life after leading a financial turnaround of tronc as the non-executive chairman. There will, therefore, be no other comment.”
It appears for now that tronc’s $5 million a year allowance to Ferro’s consulting firm will continue. Last month, the company also reinstated digital executive Ross Levinsohn after an internal investigation into harassment allegations at his previous jobs.