New Tribune Publishing CEO Jack Griffin Wants to Develop Company's Marketing Arm

Says Tribune Newspapers Have Digital DNA

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Tribune Tower in Chicago.
Tribune Tower in Chicago.

Tribune Company has named Jack Griffin CEO of its publishing unit, the company said Thursday. His first day is April 14.

The publishing unit, which consists of eight newspapers including the Los Angeles Times and Chicago Tribune, was formed last July when Tribune announced its intention to spin off the papers into a separate public company. Mr. Griffin is now charged with leading this unit into and through the spinoff, which is expected mid-year.

In jettisoning the underperforming unit, Tribune can focus on its more lucrative broadcast properties. It's a move others have made: Time Warner plans to spin off magazine unit Time Inc. in the second quarter of this year, and News Corp. split last year into a publishing company and an entertainment company.

Mr. Griffin is well acquainted with his new charge, serving as an advisor to Tribune for the past year. He was also CEO and co-founder of Empirical Media, which advised media companies on their growth strategies.

In 2010, Mr. Griffin was named CEO of Time Inc., where he spent less than six months before Time Warner CEO Jeff Bewkes showed him the door, saying "his leadership style and approach did not mesh with Time Inc. and Time Warner." Mr. Griffin previously spent 12 years at Ladies' Home Journal publisher Meredith Corp., where he was president of its publishing group and president of national media.

Jack Griffin
Jack Griffin 

Mr. Griffin spoke with Ad Age about this appointment and the Tribune's digital future. He declined to comment on whether more layoffs will hit Tribune newspapers or whether the Tribune will sell the L.A. Times, saying only that Tribune was "committed to the spin" and that he was "unaware of any such discussions." Our conversation was lightly edited.

Advertising Age: How long is your contract? Will you continue to lead Tribune Publishing past the spin off?

Jack Griffin: Yes, I've signed a multiyear contract.

Ad Age: As Tribune Co. readies itself to go public, the various newspapers will have to show digital growth if they hope to attract the attention of Wall Street. Why are you qualified to lead the company during this shift?

Mr. Griffin: I've been working with Tribune for the past year. I've had the great benefit of getting to know, people, culture and brands. My career at Meredith has also helped prepared me. I ran the division that built the Meredith digital consulting business -- and that was a long time ago. So that's some of the sensibility of this job and an imperative for the future.

Ad Age: Tribune has a marketing division, correct?

Mr. Griffin: Yes, there's a marketing arm inside Tribune publishing. I think it's sitting there waiting to be further developed and an exciting thing to work on. I would characterize Tribune publishing as having real digital chops. That's a big item on the list to continue that and certainly important in a public company environment.

Ad Age: What are Tribune's "digital chops"?

Mr. Griffin: I can't give out numbers in the public domain, but it generates significant revenues on digital platforms. With the marketing arm, each of those papers has a go-to market function that offers a whole suite of services to local advertisers and marketers. There's a digital DNA there.

As a broad general statement, the way that these papers break news is irrespective to the platform. If news is broken in Chicago, it's broken on the web. I think continuing to refine and develop the digital sensibility is what running these companies is increasingly about. The newsrooms are increasingly organized that way. Work flows are built in side of that. And it's increasingly the business.

Ad Age: Digital subscriptions are becoming an increasingly important part of newspapers' revenue, but advertising remains essential. To that end, why should marketers care about the Tribune?

Mr. Griffin: They're big important markets -- number two and three markets in L.A. and Chicago -- with newspapers that are dominant franchises there to reach consumers. Newspaper advertising works. I'm not going to name any in particular, but there are examples of retailers that abandoned newspapers and came to regret it. Newspaper advertising is responsive and immediate and tells the consumer what they are looking for or might be looking for.

Ad Age: The small pool of local marketing dollars are flowing towards Facebook and Google. How can Tribune reverse that flow, or at least slow it down?

Mr. Griffin: It's sort of axiomatic. Every media franchise and property has more competition today than yesterday and will have more tomorrow than they do today. Newspapers aren't alone. The job and skill of great marketers is to find and reach the prospect and convey the benefits of what they're selling and providing and persuade them to be a customer. That's what we do. I can't give you any more of a magic answer other than it's a lot of hard work and showing up and developing products that work.

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