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Tony Hunter, publisher, president and CEO of the Chicago Tribune Media Group, spoke to Kellogg Executive MBA students on March 19.

Tony Hunter

Not just surviving, but thriving

The CEO of the Chicago Tribune Media Group says culture change and sacrifices were needed to turn around the media company

By Amy Trang

3/25/2010 - Tony Hunter and his team had 60 days in early 2009 to set the stage for the Chicago Tribune Media Group to sink or swim.

Hunter, publisher, president and CEO of the Chicago Tribune Media Group, which encompasses titles such as, RedEye, Hoy, and Chicago magazine, needed to cut costs, raise revenue and revamp the company’s resources after the Tribune Co. filed for Ch. 11 bankruptcy in December 2008.

A new game plan that included a culture change and more transparency was vital for the company’s turnaround, Hunter said in his March 19 Executive MBA Luncheon Speaker Series talk on the Northwestern University campus. And so far, the plan is working, as readership has grown and operating cash flows are doing better than expected, Hunter said.

“We are on fire,” he said. “Despite what you read, our company is thriving.”

In an off-site retreat, Hunter and other top executives collaborated on a plan that set the mission, vision and values for the company. Then, Hunter set up town hall meetings with employees about the plans of the company and its next steps, which included stopping the decline of operating cash flow and winning customers locally with news and information.

“Simple works, complex doesn’t,” he said. “Let’s not be fearful. Let’s get on offense. Let’s control our destiny.”

The turnaround did not come without some concessions. Some of these changes included redesigning the paper and Web site as well as raising product prices and advertising rates about 20 percent. As part of “right sizing,” the company cut about 25 percent of its workforce, or about 500 to 600 employees, which wasn’t the easiest decision, Hunter said.

“I couldn’t save 3,000 jobs, but I couldn’t lose 3,000 jobs,” he said. “We had to look at it that way.”

This year, the Chicago Tribune Media Group will continue to develop its new company culture as well as look for profitable partnerships and acquisitions. The company’s strength is its ability to provide localized news and investigative journalism, Hunter said.

“People will pay for unique, specialized content, not something they’d get elsewhere,” Hunter said.