The list of reasons given by legacy publishing executives for why their companies are in decline is familiar. Print advertising imploded. Facebook and Google are too dominant. Employees are averse to change. Kids these days don’t read like they used to. Fake news. The list goes on.
But another factor—one that both contributes to media companies’ financial crisis and signals absurd internal priorities to journalists on staff—is often conspicuously absent from earnings calls: Executive compensation.
That no one gets into media to get rich is an old trope journalists share to justify mediocre salaries. The same is not true in the c-suite. Take tronc, the Chicago-based owner of a handful of prestigious titles like the Chicago Tribune and Baltimore Sun, which has become an industry punchline since it changed its name from Tribune Publishing in 2016. Various cockamamie schemes have punctuated the sad monotony of cost-cutting and layoffs. Revenues have continued shrinking. Staffers at the historically anti-labor Los Angeles Times—tronc’s largest paper—unionized amid continued mismanagement, and tronc is now selling it off for $500 million. Executive Chairman Michael Ferro abruptly left the company last month, just hours before a Fortune investigation into his alleged sexual misconduct dropped.
Despite all this turmoil, SEC filings published today showed that top brass are being rewarded with salaries that stretch well into seven figures. Check out what Ross Levinsohn took home:
You may be asking yourself at this point who Levinsohn is, and what he did to earn his $6.9 million compensation package last year. In August, he was named publisher and CEO of the LA Times. He proceeded to lose the trust of his employees at breakneck speed. tronc ultimately suspended Levinsohn in January after allegations surfaced that he harassed female employees at previous jobs, reinstating him weeks later and moving him to a top digital post at the Chicago-based mothership. His pay outpaces that of top executives at The New York Times, a financially successful and by most accounts well-managed media company.
What’s more, before Ferro was pushed out of tronc, he inked a $5 million a year deal with his own consulting company. He also spent millions on a private jet, which he rented from his own outside investment firm. In March, the same week that several Chicago Tribune journalists were laid off, SEC filings said that tronc CEO Justin Dearborn and CFO Terry Jimenez had signed new, multiyear contracts. The former’s base salary now sits at $600,000, and his potential annual performance bonus was bumped from 70 percent to 100 percent of that figure.
Tronc spokeswoman Marisa Kollias did not return my request for comment.
Newsrooms, meanwhile, have been directed to play digital catchup with fewer journalists and resources. Some raises are being fitfully granted. Two sources within the Chicago Tribune, who spoke on the condition of anonymity for fear of losing their jobs, told Splinter that they had received pay raises from their parent company, as promised. They ranged from a few percentage points to much higher, one staffer said, for people who were “seriously and grossly underpaid.” The paper’s reorganization efforts remained opaque to many rank-and-file staffers, the Tribune sources said, and the tronc SEC filing floating around Twitter Friday was certainly noticed.
“Sure is a lot of money when you’re firing people,” one source said.
In Baltimore, where the Baltimore Sun was nominated for two Pulitzer Prizes in 2016 for coverage of the police killing of Freddie Gray, veteran reporter Liz Bowie criticized the imbalance between workers and executives publicly on Friday.
When tronc offered performance-based pay raises for up to 2.5 percent of employees’ annual salaries in 2016, it excluded the unionized journalists at the Sun as part of the deal. Guild staffers took to Medium afterward to put out a public plea for better pay, but this year they were again excluded from the pay raises given to the non-unionized journalists in Chicago and elsewhere. “We all feel like we’re doing more work than we ever have,” Scott Dance, a Sun reporter who chairs the paper’s bargaining unit, told Splinter.
Reporters’ salaries often start at $30,000, Dance said, with the newsroom’s pay scale for that position topping out at $62,000 a year. It’s not much for the core piece of a news organization. And it would surely make knowledge of astronomical executive compensation more difficult to swallow, particularly for journalists who know how those executives’ far-off edicts play out at the local level.
“We don’t know any of those people,” Dance told me. “They’re in Chicago or LA...Everyone in Baltimore wants to do what’s best for the Sun.”
If you work at a tronc-owned newspaper, I’d love to talk: firstname.lastname@example.org.