Had George Washington, Abraham Lincoln and Franklin Roosevelt not appeared when they did, American history would have been written differently.

The challenges they faced were overcome, says the Great Man Theory, because these men, possessing more intelligence and ability than their peers, came to the forefront at exactly the right time to resolve the issues they confronted.

While this theory is highly debatable, any management student knows a company's top managers and board of directors, like a country's leaders, are crucial.

Their thoughts, vision, knowledge, will and fortitude determine an organization's outcome.

So who's the "Great Man" or "Great Woman" of the American newspaper industry?

At three companies, the question will be answered by bankers, perhaps even JP Morgan Chase CEO Jamie Dimon himself. After all, it was JP Morgan Chase that lent millions to newspaper and media types - as well as one real estate tycoon - all of whom ran their companies into the ground.

As a result, JP Morgan and its fellow lenders will determine who leads Tribune Co., Freedom Communications Inc. and Journal Register Co. post-bankruptcy.

Journal Register, which emerged from bankruptcy earlier this year, is already under JP Morgan Chase's tutelage following a deal that swapped debt for equity. Should bankruptcy proceedings go as expected, the bank will also become the majority shareholder of Tribune as well as Freedom, the latter because it was the California-based publisher's senior lender.

JP Morgan will then stack the respective boards of directors with their own people, says Douglas Baird, a corporate reorganization expert at the University of Chicago's law school.

Living with a banker

Reed Phillips, a partner at New York-based media investment bank DeSilva Phillips, says Tribune execs should expect a very different management style than the one they've grown accustomed to under Sam Zell.

"It won't be entrepreneurial (as it was under Zell)," said Phillips. "It'll be more corporate ownership like it was before Zell."

Which likely means that neckties, frowned upon by Zell, will once again become de rigueur.

"Dimon, like much of Wall Street, is a suit-and-tie guy," said Patricia Crisafulli, author of the recently published book "The House of Dimon: How JP Morgan's Jamie Dimon rose to the top of the Financial World."

After dealing with the dress code, the JP Morgan-led boards will also likely assemble management teams that are directed to put together a new strategy for the companies they oversee.

"They'll reassess it if necessary but the idea is that they will give the top manager (who they'll appoint) some breathing room to come up with the right strategy," said Baird.

So while current COO Randy Michaels, who helped lead Tribune into Chapter 11, might think he's staying, he might check in with Mr. Dimon to see if that synchs up.

Former Journal Register CEO James W. Hall, the exec who led the company into Chapter 11, doesn't have to worry about Dimon's plans: He's already gone.

To find the next CEO for these companies, says John Challenger, CEO of Chicago-based executive outplacement firm Challenger, Gray and Christmas, the JP Morgan-led boards will appoint CEO search committees.

And which "Great Man" or "Great Woman" will these committees try to search for?

Brainstorm sessions

They'll "brainstorm what kind of candidate they want, attributes they're looking for, key strategies they want to implement and then they'll come up with a list of who they'll approach," Challenger says.

"There's no shortage of turnaround candidates, but to get it right is a big responsibility of the board," he said. "You can always move the person out if a mistake has been made but the damage has been done.

"It's a decision you can't get wrong."

The committees will consider external and internal candidates. In an ironic twist of fate, Challenger says the next CEOs of Tribune, Freedom and Journal Register may have prior experience with the company they'll lead.

"That would say that Sam Zell made a mistake in letting them go," said Challenger, referring to the next possible Tribune head.

Jamie Dimon's role?

Baird says Dimon will have little to do with his company's stewardship of these companies, which he predicts it will own for three years.

"You can't be an organization as large as JP Morgan and have Dimon over it (a troubled newspaper company)."

Patricia Crisafulli disagrees.

"He (Dimon) is the kind of manager that's very involved in his business," she said. "While he does delegate authority and responsibility, he is the kind of manager that says, 'You're in charge and I expect you to manage this business. You have to know the risks. You have to drill down deeply (into the business) and be aware of all of the possibilities.'

"That's the kind of 'A' game he expects from people who report to him," she said.

JP Morgan declined to discuss its plans, if any, it might have for these companies.

Great people

The Great Men and Great Women of the past didn't show up cloaked with the mantle of greatness they're known for today. Indeed, they appeared like any one of us: mere mortals.

What set them apart was that they wanted to win, whether it was saving their countries or their companies, and perhaps even transforming them as a result.

The next CEOs of Tribune, Freedom and Journal Register will need that same, intense desire to win. And they'll need a heavy dose of moxie and a skill-set that enables them to turn their beleaguered franchises into successful ones.

Hire the wrong CEOs, appoint the wrong management teams, and Dimon will see the same kind of return that Sam Zell will likely receive from his ownership of Tribune: Zero.

Douglas Page, who also podcasts and blogs for News & Tech, can be reached at dpage435@hotmail.com.

(1) comment

wkadler

Terrific column, Doug. I've been at once-great publishing icons twice when their Great Man left, and then things went downhill ending up in Chapter 11. Did it make a difference who was left in charge? You bet! (Robert E. Page vs. "the new owners" at UPI, early '80s; and Tom Ryder vs. venture capitalists at Reader's Digest, circa 2007) The thing that Great Men CEOs (and women - all the best, Marissa Mayer!) have in common is that they have the best interests of their enterprise at heart - they don't regard it as solely as a vehicle for increasing profits elsewhere. Would the NY Times still have correspondents based around the world if instead of family stewardship it were owned by, say, Bain Capital? For any news organization, the best hope today is to end up with a leader who is BOTH financially solid and astute AND who has an unwavering sense of value and worthiness of the enterprise. Such is rare, but instances are still possible.

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