Sam Zell’s Heroic Deconstruction of Iconic Newspapers

Chicago Editor Quits as Tribune Cuts Deeper

By Howard Kurtz
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, July 15, 2008; C01
The editor of the Chicago Tribune resigned yesterday, six days after its parent company ordered the paper to cut 14 percent of its newsroom staff and slash the number of news pages it publishes by the same percentage.
. . . Yesterday’s news that the publisher of the Los Angeles Times has been forced out underscored the turmoil at Tribune Co., which has become perhaps the most visible symbol of an industry in financial distress. With declining revenues yielding a near-daily drumbeat of layoffs and buyouts at hundreds of papers, including the New York Times and Washington Post, executives have been leading a traumatic downsizing. And some are choosing — or being forced — to leave.
. . . Real estate financier Sam Zell, who took on considerable debt in buying the company for $8.2 billion in December, is selling off such iconic assets as the Tribune and Times headquarters and the Chicago Cubs, vowing that there will be “no sacred cows.” Zell also hired an innovation chief, Lee Abrams, who has unsettled staffers with a series of colorful memos that lend themselves to mockery.
In the latest missive, Abrams, who came from XM Satellite Radio, wrote that he had been looking at old newspapers, and “the big headline . . . editorial cartoons on the front page and other enticing visuals seemed more prevalent. There seemed to be more aggressive eye adventure (at least relative to that era) than there is now. . . .
According to Wikipedia,

“Samuel “Sam” Zell (born September 1941) is a U.S.-born billionaire and real estate entrepreneur. He is co-founder and Chairman of Equity Group Investments, a private investment firm. With an estimated net worth of US$6 billion, he is ranked as the 52nd richest American by Forbes. In April 2007, Zell leveraged a buyout of the Tribune Company, publisher of the Chicago Tribune, the Los Angeles Times and Newsday, and owner of the Chicago Cubs.”

Interestingly, in true billionaire entreprenurial style, Zell leveraged the buyout with the various newspapers’ pension funds, avoiding all but the barest minimum of his own dough. Essentially, he pulled off an $8.2 billion deal with a mere $315 million personally invested. Penny-ante. Having raided the employee cookie-jar, Zell treats the assets he controls with Rupert Murdoch disdain;
  • Peddling the iconic Michigan Avenue Tribune Tower, so he can put the Trib offices in some back-alley warehouse.
  • Forcing editor resignation after resignation at the LA Times and Tribune, as they refuse the gutting of staff to maximize profit at the expense of content.
  • Putting the Chicago Cubs up for sale, as well as Wrigley Field, the nation’s last true baseball venue, which can be named Joe Doaks Park (if the money is sufficient).

Maybe Zell, the man with small-time ethics wrapped in a big-time ego, sees himself as a Murdoch impersonator, but both the LA Times and Chicago Tribune are dissolving under his ego and inorance. If his idea is to save news by killing off reportage and investigative journalism, he’s on the wrong track. Television and the Internet have already wounded newspapers with celebrity and (endless) opinion pieces. What remains–even though better papers than Zell’s seem to misunderstand it–is the thing that made newspapering worthwhile in the first place, investigative reporting.

In the 35 years since Woodward and Bernstein brought down Richard Nixon, newspapers have slowly watched the relevance they once held as Thomas Jefferson’s hope for a free and activist press to counter-balance political malfeasance. Bought off, forced off or gone by their own disinterest in anything but their latest stock-price–take your pick of reasons for the decline.

But at a time when the newspapering business needs less Wall Street and more Bully Pulpit, Sam Zell is more undertaker than evangelist.

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