As a reporter, when you have a personal stake in a story, you're supposed to beg off the assignment. When the story is about the company you work for, you're supposed to dig in and not let go.
Welcome to the world of covering Tribune Co. for the Chicago Tribune.
For now, however, it's the biggest business story in town. If we can't handle that obligation as professionals, we might as well be sold to Ernie Banks.
For those of you who haven't been hanging on every detail, here's the latest: After the market closed Thursday, the Tribune Co.'s independent board members told the Chandler family, the company's second-largest shareholder, basically to shut up.
This was in response to the Chandler family accusing the board of rushing into a pricey stock buyback plan without properly considering other options. Nonsense, said the directors, insisting other strategies were weighed and the Chandlers knew it but have their own interests at heart.
Tribune stock, excited by the Chandlers' pitch, edged past the top price of the company's tender offer by a penny. But Tribune Chairman and Chief Executive Dennis FitzSimons sent a memo to employees, noting the company expects "to close the tender offer on June 26, and won't be distracted by current media coverage."
Some of that media coverage obviously is coming from employees, including me. There also are my colleagues Michael Oneal and Susan Chandler, who, to answer the query of an e-mailer on Thursday, is no relation to the Chandlers from the story.
The company may not be distracted by us, but we're plenty distracted by it.
For one thing, believe it or not, it's often harder to report on your own company than some other outfit.
Execs at Tribune correctly view the Chicago Tribune as warily as any other media outlet and are as capable of saying no comment to us as to The New York Times or anyone else. Yet outsiders sometimes treat us as though we're passing FitzSimons our notes in the cafeteria as soon as we hang up.
Whatever our loyalty to the newspaper, our relationship to Tribune Co. management, no matter what critics think, is hardly one of unwavering affection. One colleague of mine, not covering the story, recently confided that the decline in Tribune's share price in recent years has meant he has lost more money from his once-sizable retirement investment in the stock than he has earned on the job.
That's why we have no trouble, on those few occasions when he is willing to talk to the press, grilling FitzSimons to the best of our ability.
Personally speaking, FitzSimons is not my boss. Not directly, anyway. I made a point to look it up when this whole buyback thing began to heat up.
He is my boss' boss' boss' boss' boss' boss' boss. That puts him seven management levels above me, which, as I have come to understand the Tribune hierarchy, suggests he will not instantly crush me like a bug if he becomes annoyed with what I write.
There will be at least six phone calls before I am crushed, not to mention several meetings and reams of paperwork. We could be owned by Oprah Winfrey by then.
I'd be lying if I didn't admit I'm aware of the impact of every single word when I write about Tribune, probably more than when I write about other companies. An editor I work with talks about imagining FitzSimons reading the paper the next morning. But then we remember he's paying us to report and analyze the news as aggressively as we can.
So we press on.
The biggest slip-up so far was not something we did. It was something we didn't do. We failed to notice the Securities and Exchange Commission filing disclosing the Chandlers' dissatisfaction with the buyback. We learned of it on Page 1 of the Wall Street Journal.
While some accused us of deliberately hiding the news, we just blew it.
There's nothing more embarrassing than getting scooped on your own company, yet if we somehow had the story first, some would say it was simply handed to us.
This is not the first time I have covered people for whom I work. When I was younger I was sent to talk to Jack Kent Cooke, owner of my paper, the Los Angeles Daily News. Things went horribly awry. He became incensed when he realized our "interview" in his office would involve me, you know, taking notes.
An editor was summoned. I silently calculated my severance package.
It didn't come to that. The story, about one of Cooke's former employees, wasn't all that important, enabling me to write it without mentioning the cranky old man.
Man, those were the good old days.