Stayin’ alive with Platinum Equity

Tom Gores
Tom Gores

One can only imagine the glee that folks at the Boston Globe must have felt when they came across a photo of prospective owner Tom Gores looking like he’s starring in the community-theater remake of “Saturday Night Fever.” The photo leads a long piece on Gores’ tenure at the San Diego Union-Tribune.

Wearing a flamboyantly pinstriped black suit jacket over a black shirt strategically unbuttoned to show off his smooth chest (and don’t miss the black-and-white polka-dot handerchief), Gores comes across as an exceedingly unlikely candidate to stabilize the Globe’s finances while preserving its journalism. The story dwells in some detail on embarrassing facts about Gores’ personal life as well.

I should note that the photo is credited to Gores’ firm, Platinum Equity. So he must be quite proud of it.

Still, you never know. Platinum is one of two groups in the running to purchase the Globe and the Worcester Telegram & Gazette from the New York Times Co. The other, favored by most people I talk with, is headed by former Globe executive Stephen Taylor and former Globe publisher Ben Taylor, prominent members of the family that sold the paper to the Times Co. in 1993.

Platinum Equity has been the subject of fascination since it acquired the Union-Tribune earlier this year. But as the Globe story notes, though the paper’s staff has been slashed to ribbons, the Union-Tribune is now on track to turn a small profit this year. Quality matters; but nothing is possible at a paper that keeps bleeding cash.

The non-profit news site Voices of San Diego, which has been keeping a watchful eye on Platinum, recently ran a piece containing what might be described as cautious praise. The story quotes an anonymous staff member following a meeting with management: “I went into the meeting not super-receptive, given that this is the management team that had laid off more than 100 people the day before. I came out feeling better about the future of the paper than I have in two years.” The story continues:

Two other newsroom workers agreed with that assessment, and all three said they were hopeful and impressed by the new management’s willingness to criticize the old regime. (The staff members requested anonymity for fear of antagonizing the new bosses.)

The positive feelings are remarkable considering how the U-T has been plagued by poor morale and severe financial troubles in recent years. The paper has physically shrunk by about half since 2006, and several rounds of layoffs and buyouts have eliminated about half of all jobs companywide.

To be sure, there is a lot of low-hanging fruit at the Union-Tribune. Employees still paste up pages manually, a labor-intensive practice that is now being eliminated. But for the Union-Tribune to achieve financial stability so quickly, and for management now to be talking about growth, is an impressive achievement given the dire straits in which the newspaper business finds itself.

Still, I’d certainly feel better if the Taylor group prevails. Yes, the Globe has to succeed as a business. But with the Taylors, I’m more confident that managers would seek to define the journalistic mission first, then figure out how to pay for it.

The Globe’s coming back tomorrow with a look at the Taylor group. I expect to see a photo of Steve and Ben dressed in tasteful, non-ostentatious business suits, their jackets off and their sleeves rolled up, serving meals at a homeless shelter before heading in to work.