Be careful - this could happen to you. That's one of the central messages of former LA Times Editor James O'Shea's The Deal from Hell, which outlines how a bunch of intelligent, well-meaning industry professionals tanked what had, just 10 years prior, been a thriving American newspaper trade. O'Shea almost goes as far to suggest that if you're starting to hear the word "synergy" a lot in your office, you might want to think about a career change.
The "deal" initially referred to the bizarre take-over of Tribune Company by real estate cowboy Sam Zell, but more broadly came to refer to the merger of Tribune (The Chicago Tribune) and the LA-based Times Mirror (The LA Times). Using that deal as a prime example, the book tackles a wide range of problems that have befallen the newspaper industry in the last few decades. Through the lens of these specific mergers and acquisitions, we get a broad spectrum through which to view these problems in realistic ways.
On one level, The Deal From Hell is about all the problems in the modern American print journalism industry. First, the old newspaper families grow conflicted and unsure. Next, the bean-counters take over. Before we know it, management is demanding the demolition of the invisible wall between the business and editorial sides of a number of esteemed publications. Through it all, O'Shay guides us on a painful step-by-step process of what went wrong and how. Like watching a car crash in slow motion, we're given ample information at every turn to anticipate the arrival of all the most cringe-worthy moments.
On another, perhaps more significant level, this book is about how numbers-driven values are also eroding our world at large. At every turn, managers scheme to slice costs, fraudulently increase circulation numbers, and make cut after cut to the work force actively covering the news. Rome really starts burning with the arrival of the nutty Wall Street types, who ride in on a tide of big bank financing, office pinball machines, and sexual harassment suits. O'Shea subtly hints that it's not just the news at stake anymore, as our whole society becomes about profits and losses, zeros and ones.
The frank, honest narration of L.J. Ganser makes us feel as if we've been privy to the backroom wheelings and dealings of the business side, as well as the tense interactions of reporters on the newsroom floor. And, while The Deal from Hell might not be a comprehensive guide to the downfall of all western print journalism, it's definitely one hell of a story. Gina Pensiero