Sunday, April 15, 2007

Zell Bluntly Says L.A. Times Will Not Be Sold

In his clearest statement to date, Sam Zell has told Maria Bartiromo, in an interview published in BusinessWeek that he will not sell the L.A. Times. It sounds like a definitive statement by the new Tribune Co. owner.

"There's no intention of selling the L.A. Times," Zell said. "Period. End of speech."

And, to a followup question from Bartiromo, who, by the way conducted a more penetrating interview with Zell than either the Chicago Tribune or the L.A. Times, Zell said,

"I don't have any plans to sell any newspapers. We're going to own all the newspapers for the foreseeable future." That would seem to be definitive for Newsday, the Baltimore Sun, the Hartford Courant and other former Times-Mirror newspapers, with the exception of the ones in Greenwich and Stamford, which, I believe, were committed to sale before Zell came on board.

Zell did reiterate that the Chicago Cubs baseball team would be sold, saying, "I'm really not a baseball fan" and indicating he expects a lucrative selling price.

The Bartiromo interview also elicited a strong statement by Zell of his belief in the future of the newspaper industry.

"Where everyone is prophesying the newspaper business is dead, I think of Mark Twain's quote as applicable," Zell said, "that reports of its death are highly exaggerated."

However, Zell was noncommittal on staffing level plans, saying, "I don't have enough information at this point to answer that."

In another part of the interview, Zell said he "absolutely not" will use the editorial pages of the various Tribune newspapers to reflect his own personal views.

When Bartiromo asked, "Why?," Zell responded:

"This is an economic transaction. I'm not buying a way to get my views shared with the world. I'm not averse to telling everybody exactly what I think. But I believe in editorial independence. I truly believe that the editorial side of this business should not be determined by someone in my position. And I'm perfectly happy to have the newsrooms continue to do what they've been doing, and maybe do it better."

This does not completely exclude that he may have some influence over what the editorial pages of his papers say, because he refers to "newsrooms," and it is not clear that he and Bartiromo are using the same exact meaning for editorial pages, but the implication certainly is the individual publishers and editorial pages editors will be free to express their views in editorials. We'll see.

In another part of the Bartiromo interview, Zell indicated his satisfaction that the Chandler family is being bought out of any shares in the Tribune-owned papers, remarking that "the biggest immediate benefit" of his purchase "is that the warfare between shareholders and the company will end and that in itself will go a long way toward improving the environment" for company decision making.

This blog has been devoted, throughout its two and a half years thus far, to the idea of selling the Times back to local ownership. But now I and other such proponents have little choice but to wait and see how Zell runs the newspapers. He was explicit with Bartiromo that his tenure as the Tribune owner would be fairly lengthy, saying, "We envision being involved at least 10 years."

--

As I said in a blog March 1, the Los Angeles bid for the 2016 Olympic Games got off on the wrong foot, because its $112 million plan to renovate the Coliseum indicated a third L.A. Games would be improvisational and Spartan, like the 1984 Games, and Olympic authorities would not be likely to settle for that. Also, I mentioned the over representation on the L.A. bid committee of downtown lawyers and the failure to sufficiently bring in Hollywood celebrities.

Now, the selection by the U.S. Olympic Committee board of Chicago as the American candidate city for the Games confirms that my impressions were correct. Chicago also undoubtedly benefited, as Helene Elliott suggests in her story this morning in the L.A. Times by not only coming up with an ambitious plan, well presented, but also by the fact that it has never held the Olympics before, while Los Angeles has had it twice.

I do not share the view some are expressing that Chicago has a good chance to be awarded the Games by the International Olympic Committee in 2009. Given the present world environment, I think it's more likely that the IOC will choose a foreign city. We'll see.

A somewhat different view of that, and an assessment of the Chicago victory yesterday which somewhat parallels mine, can be seen from Alan Abrahamson, the former L.A. Times Olympic correspondent who has now gone to work for NBC, at NBCsports.com. It is well worth reading.

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