Wednesday, August 22, 2007

Zell Reassured Los Angeles Elite With Blunt Talk

Los Angeles is the nation's second largest city and is known throughout the world as one of the most distinctive places on the planet. So, naturally, it has been tough on the city to lose control over its newspaper, and to feel that the new owners, in Chicago, didn't care a great deal whether the newspaper was any good or not.

Now, with the advent of Sam Zell, as prospective new owner of the Tribune Co., there is a chance that the relationship with the owners can change. That possibility is what brought the city's elite to the Los Angeles Times last Thursday to meet Zell, who was also here to address L.A. Times managers.

Generally speaking, from what Manatt, Phelps law partner George Kieffer, chair of the two-year-old Civic Alliance, had to say about last Thursday's meeting, it can be concluded that it went well, that Zell made a good impression, and that he seemed sincere when he said he was "leaning" toward giving the Times more autonomy within Tribune operations.

Another member of the Alliance who attended the meeting remarked afterward, "(Now), we all have our fingers crossed."

Zell, who is about to turn 66, is listed by Forbes magazine as the 52nd richest man in America. Born in Chicago the son of Polish Jewish immigrants who had fled Hitler in 1939, he made his fortune in real estate, often taking what appeared to be bad investment choices that turned out gloriously. His political and charitable contribution record leans Republican. Zell has given to both Rudolph Giuliani and John McCain, and he contributed last year to the reelection of Sen. Joseph Lieberman in Connecticut against an antiwar candidate. But he has also given to many Democrats, including such liberals as Sen. Russell Feingold of Wisconsin. He has further been a generous contributor to educational institutions both in the U.S. and Israel. Programs in his name are proceeding at the University of Michigan, the Wharton school at the University of Pennsylvania, Northwestern University and in Caesarea in Israel. He owns a house in Malibu, where he spends considerable time away from his home in Chicago.

As he proved again in his meetings here on Thursday, Zell is informal and direct, as you would expect from someone who has had so much success in life. He greatly impressed members of the Times staff Thursday by using the F-word three times, and was gently cautioned on his language by one of the members of the more staid Civic Alliance. Zell was dressed in jeans for both meetings, and remarked at one point that he could have worn a suit, "but that wouldn't be me."

The group of 22 business, professional and organizational leaders who met with Zell for an hour and 45 minutes in the board room at the Times building is composed of the city's talented elite. Those present included a former U.S. Secretary of State, Warren Christopher, the chairman of th e Los Angeles Police Commission, John Mack, the publishers of two news organizations, the Spanish-language La Opinion and the Los Angeles Business Journal, the two highest officials from the Los Angeles Area Chamber of Commerce, the heads of black, Latino, Japanese, Asian and Pacific islander associations, the head of Los Angeles' United Way. and the CEOs of Cedars-Sinai hospital and the City National Bank. The group meets monthly to discuss issues of moment, such as transportation, crime, disaster preparedness, media performance and so on.

This was the group that wrote to Tribune Co. CEO Dennis FitzSimons last fall appealing to him to either support the L.A. Times with enough resources for it to continue to be one of the nation's leading newspapers, or to consider selling it. In short then, this is a group of citizens proud to be Los Angelenos and prepared to stand up for the city. Recently, among its meetings, Kieffer said, was one with three managers of leading local television stations, to whom they appealed for more extensive coverage of local news.

Zell, asked at one point about Los Angeles citizen criticism of the Times in its present state, replied that it seemed to him that L.A. was harder on its newspaper than the residents of many other cities.

Zell was accompanied to the meeting by Times publisher David Hiller and editor James O'Shea, managers sent to L.A. from Chicago last November after two independent-minded publishers, John Puerner and Jeffrey Johnson, and two editors, John Carroll and Dean Baquet, had been forced out for resisting cost cutbacks at the Times advanced by FitzSimons and other Tribune executives.

According to Kieffer, Zell put considerable emphasis during the meeting on exploring whether the Tribune Co., which owns many newspapers and television stations across the country, as well as the Chicago Cubs, is a " single corporation" or a "conglomerate."

He said he leans toward believing it is a conglomerate, and that if this is so, the various major properties should have considerable autonomy to decide their own policies rather than always knuckle under to Chicago. (Of course, this was an argument advanced by Baquet, now the Washington bureau chief of the New York Times, before he was fired by Hiller last November).

For instance, Kieffer said, when members of the Civic Alliance made a point during last week's meeting of questioning whether advertising should be placed on Page 1 of the Times, Zell said he might well be inclined not to make that decision himself, but to leave it to Hiller. He also said that if ads are not going to be placed, perhaps Hiller could come up with alternative ideas for a needed revenue stream, at a time when newspapers across the country have suffered advertising declines.

(Hiller, I should add, seemed to be going along with overall Tribune policy when he first broached the plan for putting ads on Page 1. The idea was advanced at other Tribune newspapers virtually the same day and appeared to be generated from Chicago. At the Times, the idea has encountered broad resistance, with even the editor, Shea, vehemently opposed, as well as many senior members of the Times staff and ordinary subscribers. So far, no such ads have appeared).

Toward the end of the meeting, when someone questioned how members of the Civic Alliance could give Zell support, Zell responded bluntly, in so many words, that he was not asking for the group's support, but its neutrality, while it watches what he as the Tribune's new owner, actually does, as compared to what he might say.

I asked a retired Times editor what he thought of that. "Zell is telling them, he's going to run the show," was this editor's interpretation.

But, perhaps, after years of poor direction by FitzSimons and other Tribune managers, which seem to have only spun the company only into more debt and poorer business condition, even while diminishing the quality of the Times, that is what even the Los Angeles elite would desire.

--

Bill Dwyre, the former Times sports writer who now writes a sports column, had a powerful one in Tuesday's newspaper, suggesting in the strongest terms that National Football League Commissioner Roger Goodell take very tough disciplinary action against Michael Vick, the Atlanta Falcons quarterback, for organizing dog fights, treating the dogs brutally, gambling and other offenses.

Dwyre has always been outspoken against gambling and a strong upholder of quality in sports. It's good to see, he's not lost his edge on these vital issues.

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