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Tribune Publishing Takes A Futuristic Step To Become 'tronc'


Tribune Publishing, the troubled corporate owner of the Los Angeles Times, the Chicago Tribune and The Baltimore Sun is no more. As of this morning, it has a futuristic new strategy and a futuristic new name. NPR media correspondent David Folkenflik has the story.

DAVID FOLKENFLIK, BYLINE: The news arrived first, for so many, as news does these days, not in the morning paper, but in a tweet or email.

DAN FESPERMAN: Tronc - a friend of mine at The Sun sent me a press release announcing this name, which sounded like a sci-fi movie.

FOLKENFLIK: That's the novelist Dan Fesperman. He covered three wars for The Baltimore Sun and was a reporter there for more than 20 years. Fesperman says a reporter's life is one of adventure. The charge? To explain complex issues in human terms.

FESPERMAN: And then when I read the press release, it read to me like a dialogue from a Christopher Guest movie. It was starnge, convoluted explanation, which made me laugh, which I'm sure wasn't their intent.

FOLKENFLIK: Tronc, small T, is to be a content curation and monetization company focused on creating and distributing premium verified content. Notably, the words news and journalism did not appear anywhere in that mission statement, nor did any mention of the newspapers.

FESPERMAN: It was pretty indecipherable. And then there was a little bit about artificial intelligence, which I suppose could be used to characterize top management of a company that would call itself Tronc.

FOLKENFLIK: The Washington Post called that the worst press release in the history of journalism - and well it might. The Post has taken great strides digitally under the ownership of Amazon founder Jeff Bezos while keeping a name from 1877. Meanwhile, Tribune Publishing - excuse me - Tronc could use some good news. It's reeling after being spun off from the more profitable Tribune Corporation.

MICHAEL FERRO: So before I got to Tribune Publishing, there was a lot of things going wrong.

FOLKENFLIK: That's the company's new chairman, Michael Ferro. He brushed the mockery aside recently on CNBC.


FERRO: This company was on the the road to defaulting on its debt covenants. So this company was built to fail.

FOLKENFLIK: Ferro has also been fighting off a takeover bid from the larger Gannett newspaper company. He says Tronc must innovate swiftly. And yes, that involves artificial intelligence.


FERRO: There's all these really new, fun features - content, make videos faster. And right now we're doing a couple hundred videos a day. We think we need to be doing 2,000 videos a day.

FOLKENFLIK: Two thousand videos a day - that's a lot of videos to Tronc. Ferro is a self-described ideas machine, a manic presence who made a mint off health care technology and says he can save journalism. Anne Vasquez is Tronc's chief digital officer.

ANNE VASQUEZ: We're building a optimization engine and group that's going to help harness the power of all of our markets and using better technology than we've had before. And the more we know who our audience is, the better we can serve them.

FOLKENFLIK: Vasquez says, the journalistic legacy endures. And the papers will all retain their names and regional identities.

VASQUEZ: What distinguishes us from a very crowded media landscape, especially new-media startups, is our credibility, is our journalistic past, is the fact that we have 92 Pulitzers among us. And it's about taking that credibility and applying new technology to it in a way that we really haven't been able to before.

FOLKENFLIK: I spoke with senior executives at six major media companies - three old media, three digital media plays. Not one voiced faith in the approach or even in the notion that Ferro had any idea what he was doing. The nicest assessment - the nicest - was this. They have an impossible job. Today is day one of Tronc. David Folkenflik, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

David Folkenflik was described by Geraldo Rivera of Fox News as "a really weak-kneed, backstabbing, sweaty-palmed reporter." Others have been kinder. The Columbia Journalism Review, for example, once gave him a "laurel" for reporting that immediately led the U.S. military to institute safety measures for journalists in Baghdad.