Tronc’s Michael Ferro bids L.A. goodbye

Michael Ferro (Photo: Christopher Michel)

When Michael Ferro took control of Tribune Publishing in 2016, he saw the Los Angeles Times as the crown jewel of the company and the key to his grand ambitions to create a “global entertainment brand.”

Ferro envisioned opening new bureaus in such media capitals as Hong Kong, Seoul, Rio de Janiero, Lagos and Moscow, and leveraging artificial intelligence and machine learning to revolutionize journalism. As part of his digital transformation strategy, he changed the name of the company to tronc — short for Tribune Online Content.

“We are planning on breathing some life into the L.A. Times globally," Ferro said at the time. “We will be talking about how to get the L.A. Times brand . . . to the world. It’s on a par with the New York Times and other international publications, that no one has properly cared for, and we are going to do that."

Owning the flagship paper also gave the Chicago tech entrepreneur entree to Hollywood, where he could indulge his fascination with show business and movie stars. In moving his longtime lieutenant, tronc CEO Justin Dearborn, to Los Angeles, Ferro further tied the company’s future to the West Coast market.

But that all abruptly ended Wednesday with the sale of the L.A. Times and the San Diego Union-Tribune to biotech billionaire Patrick Soon-Shiong for $500 million. After 18 years of Chicago-based Tribune and tronc ownership, the L.A. Times was back under hometown control of Angelenos.

Ferro’s hand may have been forced by months of turmoil at the L.A. Times, including a newly unionized newsroom in near revolt, a publisher put on leave for harassment allegations (Ross Levinsohn was cleared with a finding of “no wrongdoing”), and a revolving door of top editors. The paper’s third editor-in-chief in six months, former Chicago Sun-Times publisher and editor Jim Kirk, will continue in the role, according to an email to employees from Dearborn.

On Wednesday tronc also announced the reorganization of its Tribune Interactive division. Based in Chicago and led by reinstated executive Levinsohn, it will be the home to all of tronc’s digital assets and functions.

“We are excited to continue to build the future of the company through product and digital content innovations and distribution initiatives, as well as strategic partnerships and acquisitions to accelerate growth,” Dearborn said in a statement.

What’s left now is a substantially smaller tronc that’s top-heavy with executive salaries and perks — including the $15 million consulting fee Ferro is paying his own company, Merrick Ventures, for "management expertise and technical services.”

Flush with cash from the sale and with shares at an all-time tronc high of $20, the scaled-down company may be ripe for sale. Gannett Co., which Ferro rebuffed in 2016, could be back at the top of the list of possible suitors, according to analysts.

The future of the Chicago Tribune — as well as the New York Daily News, the Baltimore Sun, the Orlando Sentinel and other tronc papers — remains in Ferro’s hands for now.