Tribune CEO Is Expected to Keep His Cool in Fight

Share via
Times Staff Writer

People who admire Dennis J. FitzSimons say he works like an ox, is dead honest, inspires deep loyalty in the people around him and, when pushed, will fight.

His critics say that, in addition, the chairman and chief executive of Tribune Co. can be self-confident to the point of arrogance and touchy about being challenged. Some doubt his strategic vision and, as the first Tribune chief to rise through the broadcast division, his “feel” for newspapers.

Even in Tribune’s hometown of Chicago, where everybody has an opinion about what goes on inside the iconic Tribune Tower, FitzSimons is something of a mystery despite his role as head of a $6-billion media giant that owns the Los Angeles Times, KTLA-TV Channel 5, the Chicago Tribune, the Chicago Cubs and other properties.


“He’s gone unexamined here in Chicago for someone in that position,” said Steve Rhodes, a former writer for Chicago magazine and the Tribune who now heads the Windy City online journal the Beachwood Reporter.

That is changing, as FitzSimons, who turns 56 on Monday, has found himself the target of dissident Tribune directors who have publicly criticized the performance of management -- and FitzSimons by extension -- in provocative and insulting terms.

On FitzSimons’ watch, they said, Tribune has flubbed opportunities “to invest aggressively in growing new businesses” and has been unable to arrest the decline of its core newspaper and broadcast TV units. This “strategic failure has had disastrous effects,” the dissidents -- representing members of California’s Chandler family -- said in a letter to the Tribune board made public in a regulatory filing last week.

After the feud broke into the open, Tribune’s stock reversed course after a two-year slide, apparently on hopes that the dissidents would force a quick breakup of Tribune or an outright sale.

FitzSimons declined to be interviewed for this article, but said through a spokesman that he would make his views public today in New York as a speaker at a Newspaper Assn. of America conference.

Friends think they know how he will respond to having his leadership publicly called into question: He’ll come back swinging but won’t lose his head.


“I don’t think anybody’s going to intimidate Dennis; he’s a street fighter,” said Jack Sander, vice chairman of Dallas-based television and newspaper company Belo Corp., who has known FitzSimons since they were TV-ad salesmen 30 years ago. “Dennis is not going to walk away from a fight. He will step back and evaluate the situation.”

Newsman Geraldo Rivera, who credits FitzSimons with organizing the national syndication of his talk show using Tribune’s WGN superstation in Chicago as the flagship outlet, recalls one fight in particular that he astutely assessed.

In the mid-1990s, Rivera’s program was making inroads against the “Oprah Winfrey Show,” the prized property of syndication mogul Roger King of KingWorld Productions, now owned by CBS Corp. King launched what Rivera regarded as a self-serving campaign to rid the airwaves of cheesy, sensationalistic -- and popular -- programs such as those hosted by Jerry Springer and Rivera. The campaign began getting traction in Washington, with the support of such politicians as Connecticut Sen. Joe Lieberman.

Tribune didn’t need the bad publicity, much less potential legislation that could crimp its operations. But instead of getting mad, FitzSimons got creative, Rivera said in an interview.

“He figured the way to get Roger King to shut up was to invite him to participate in our distribution,” Rivera said, adding, “once the sniping was done, the show took off.”

Rivera cautioned against drawing too close a parallel between the King incident and the challenge from the Chandlers.


“It’s become a public fight now,” he said. “They’ve got him backed into a corner and that’s exactly where they don’t want him.”

FitzSimons grew up in the Jackson Heights section of Queens, N.Y., the youngest of four sons of a beer-truck driver for Anheuser-Busch Cos. and a stay-at-home mom. After high school at Fordham Prep, he majored in political science at Fordham University, a Jesuit school in the Bronx.

He joined Tribune in 1982 as a sales manager for WGN after several years as an advertising sales agent. After a stint at a Tribune station in New Orleans, he returned to Chicago and soon became general manager of WGN, which he once described as “the best job I ever had.”

FitzSimons is one of the executives most closely associated with Tribune’s broadcasting growth spurt in the mid-1990s, when it went on a buying spree that took it from six stations to 26. Highly focused and detail-oriented, FitzSimons had a keen sense for buying stations, consolidating and cutting costs.

He rose to become head of Tribune Broadcasting before taking over as CEO in 2002.

Married with a son and two daughters, FitzSimons lives in the exclusive New Trier neighborhood on Chicago’s North Shore and summers in Westhampton, N.Y.

With his signature mustache, close-cropped hair and powerful build -- a trim 6 feet 2-- he resembles a boxer from the bare-knuckle era. But he never boxed; his games are basketball and golf. He shoots in the mid-80s at the Glen View Club on Chicago’s well-to-do North Shore, and is a basketball sharpshooter.


He doesn’t mind baseball, either, if it means suiting up in a Cubs uniform and playing at Wrigley Field. FitzSimons uses the lure of one of baseball’s most glamorous old ballparks to wow important customers of Tribune’s station group in annual “fantasy games” with retired Cubs stars.

FitzSimons flashes a competitive streak in sports as in business. For several years, as part of Tribune’s annual United Way drive, he has offered employees the chance to take on the boss in a shooting game in the half-size basement basketball court created when the newspaper removed its printing presses years ago.

The game is five shots. The challenger shoots first, and FitzSimons has to match any shot his opponent makes. If FitzSimons loses, he pays the employee’s United Way contribution and doubles it out of his own pocket.

Lots of people line up to play, but “precious few beat him,” said a Tribune journalist who has tried his hand.

His passion for basketball does not seem to extend to newspaper journalism, according to some big-city newsroom people who work for FitzSimons or have done so. They say that although he is always gentlemanly, he can be difficult to engage in conversation about their work.

“He seems uncomfortable with discussions about the public-service mission of newspapers,” said one high-level journalist who requested anonymity.


That person, like many interviewed for this story, declined to speak for attribution.

Howard A. Tyner, a longtime editor of the Tribune who retired as a corporate vice president two years ago, said FitzSimons had “an intellectual understanding” of the special role of newspapers, but described him as “a very pragmatic, bottom-line guy who sometimes thinks journalists use that 1st Amendment argument to get away with things” -- such as ignoring the bottom line.

At Tribune’s biggest newspaper, The Times, a survey of employees last August revealed misgivings about the parent company. With an unusually high 81.7% of employees responding, only 34% answered “yes” to the question: “Is this company highly regarded by Tribune Co.?” Only 27% of the newsroom staff said they felt “appreciated” by Tribune.

“There was very much a feeling of being stepchildren,” Susan Denley, Times editor for hiring and staff development, said of the response.

As a boss, FitzSimons is not a screamer. “I’ve never found him to be unfair or dishonest,” said one person who has worked with him and is not an admirer. “I can’t imagine him ever getting caught in an options-backdating scandal, for example.”

On the other hand, the person said, FitzSimons is capable of clinging to a losing position out of a deep faith that any problem will eventually yield to sheer effort.

Faced with the intractable erosion of newspaper and broadcast advertising revenue, “Dennis says, ‘We’re going to operate our way out of this.’ It’s like swimming for it after the Titanic goes down,’ ” the person said.


FitzSimons hired veteran TV executive Greg Nathanson to run KTLA in the early 1990s, when Los Angeles was suffering through a real estate downturn and the station was not performing up to par.

Although some critics regard FitzSimons as overly cautious and unwilling to spend on news, Nathanson lauded him for not interfering when KTLA became the only station to cover the O.J. Simpson trial gavel-to-gavel. With no ads being aired, the coverage cost the station a huge amount of money, “but Dennis understood it helped our image,” Nathanson said.

Cissy Baker, Washington bureau chief and vice president for news operations at Tribune Broadcasting, said FitzSimons “was always behind the expansion of news if it made financial sense.”

At a time when the newspaper and broadcasting businesses are slipping, supporters say FitzSimons gets blamed for problems that are industrywide or, in some cases, deeply embedded in Tribune’s conservative, risk-averse culture.

They say Tribune’s $8.3-billion acquisition of Times Mirror Co. in 2000, near the top of a frothy market, was not of FitzSimons’ doing. A then-Tribune insider said FitzSimons was skeptical of the deal, which was championed by former Chief Executive John W. Madigan, who declined to comment for this article.

Regardless of how he got into this fix, it’s up to FitzSimons to work his way out of it. Jamie Kellner, who founded the WB Network in partnership with Tribune and Fitzsimons, said his longtime friend was coolheaded.


“Dennis does not panic,” Kellner said, “and I don’t think he’ll panic in this situation.”



Name: Dennis Joseph FitzSimons

Title: Chairman and chief executive, Tribune Co.

Birthplace: Queens, N.Y.

Date of birth: June 26, 1950

Education: Fordham Prep High School, Fordham University

First job: Grey Advertising

Family: Married with a son and two daughters

Golf handicap: 13

Source: Times research


Times staff writer Joseph Menn contributed to this report.