First came the questions about misconduct. Then came Tronc chair's sudden retirement

Turmoil at major media outlets
Turmoil at major media outlets

Michael Ferro, the highly controversial chairman of the newspaper publisher Tronc, is stepping down after just two years on the job.

The surprise announcement was made on Monday morning. The press release celebrated Ferro's achievements.

But a few hours later, there was another surprise: Fortune magazine published an investigation into allegations of "inappropriate advances" by Ferro.

A Tronc spokeswoman did not respond to questions about when Tronc leadership was made aware of the allegations, or any connections between Ferro's departure and the Fortune investigation.

The magazine said it "reached out to Ferro last week" with on-the-record accounts from two women who said they were negatively affected by Ferro's alleged advances.

The magazine also spoke with former Ferro employees who described questionable behavior in his past.

A spokesman for Ferro didn't refute the allegations. Instead, in a statement on Monday, he cited Ferro's departure from Tronc as a reason to stay quiet.

"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," the spokesman said. "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."

Even before the Fortune story was published, some journalists at Tronc's papers were saying good riddance to Ferro.

He juiced Tronc's stock price and orchestrated a sale of its biggest paper, the Los Angeles Times. But at what cost?

While investors are pleased by the company's fiscal performance, newsroom leaders at The Times, the Chicago Tribune and other papers have blamed Ferro for cutbacks that have diminished day-to-day news coverage.

Blake Schuster, who once interned at the Chicago Tribune, channeled some of the newsroom feelings in a Monday morning tweet that read, "Michael Ferro presented himself as a savior, gutted the Tribune, treated its finances as his own piggy bank and hurt numerous people in the process. He's a fraud. And he'll make out with millions with no consequences."

It's the latest chapter of a sad story that's taking place all across the country: Local papers laying off staffers while struggling to retain advertisers and move from print to digital. But Tronc's story is especially sad, critics say.

Ferro, a Chicago investor, took control of Tronc in 2016 by buying a $44 million stake in the company, then named Tribune Publishing. He was widely ridiculed for rebranding the company as Tronc, short for Tribune Online Content, and for introducing a strategy that made it the laughingstock of the industry.

At the time Ferro inserted himself, the stock was trading at around $7. Now it's hovering around $16.

Ferro's partner Justin Dearborn, Tronc's CEO, praised Ferro for driving up shareholder value in Monday's surprise retirement announcement.

"Michael retires having created considerable shareholder value for the company in just two years as chairman of the board," said Dearborn, who will now serve as both CEO and chairman.

The announcement sparked speculation that Tronc could be up for sale soon.

The publisher will be much smaller once its own sale of The Los Angeles Times and other southern California newspapers goes through.

Related: What went wrong at the Los Angeles Times?

The L.A. newsroom is one of the centers of criticism of Tronc management -- particularly for lavish spending on executive salaries and other perks. Ferro recently signed a three-year contract worth $5 million a year.

At the same time, Ferro and his colleagues spearheaded multiple restructuring plans at papers like the Tribune, resulting in further job losses for frontline journalists.

The Chicago newsroom was hit by a wave of layoffs last week as part of a plan to "become a more digital enterprise."

Ferro, for his part, issued a statement that thanked "everyone who worked so hard over the last two years creating great journalism,strengthening the company's financial position and delivering significant value for shareholders."

He said Dearborn and other executives will "continue to deliver value for investors while executing the plan for digital transformation."


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