Tuesday, June 17, 2008

Is Zell Redesign A Plot To Destroy His Newspapers?

After all, Sam Zell is a slumlord, not a newspaperman. And the more I read about his plan to "redesign" his newspapers, beginning with the Tribune Co.'s outlet in Orlando June 22, the more I suspect that his real design is to ruin his papers and then sell off the lucrative property they occupy.

Fanciful? I think not. Zell only put $315 million of his own money into buying Tribune Co. And he could easily make quite a profit, if he were just to sell the property, much of which, such as the L.A. Times and Chicago Tribune, is located on prime downtown land.

Who would be left holding the bag? Why, the employees, of course, either before or after the inevitable layoffs. It is their stock money that is really at stake, and, the Lord knows, he, Randy Michaels, and, at the Times, publisher David Hiller and editor Russ Stanton, won't care about that stake. They will still have their golden parachutes. Their concern for their employees is zero.

The L.A. Times employees? They will go the way of the unfortunates who worked for Carter Hawley Hale.

Ken Roderick at LA Observed, and many other commentators, including just last week Harold Meyerson, now of the Washington Post, have been very precisely laying out just what the "redesigns" will bring: a precipitate decline in both circulation and advertising revenues as the readers realize that the papers have been "dumbed down," scores of pages of news removed to satisfy the 50-50 ad-news ratio dictated by Zell, and foreign and national news most sharply cut back. This in metropolitan centers that crave such news. A mockup of the Orlando Sentinel is out today; nobody in Los Angeles would want to read such a paper.

Tribune Co. is not the only newspaper publisher in trouble. McClatchy, its advertising revenue down 16% in May, announced an average 10% layoff at its papers this week. That means a loss of 1,400 workers, on top of 2,000 lost already. But Tribune is a less successful company than most. It is falling apart, actually.

Zell and Tribune Co. may be evil, but they are not stupid. They know that soon there won't be much of any of the Tribune papers left. The papers' reputation will sink into the toilet, and all that will really remain will be the land they sit on.

So, as Stephen Vincent Benet wrote in 'John Brown's Body,' his book-length, narrative Pulitzer Prize-winning poem on the Civil War, "This is the last, this is the last, the last of the wine and the white corn meal, the last high fiddle singing the reel, the last of the silk with the Paris label..."

The L.A. Times had some fine articles over the weekend -- Ken Weiss' forboding piece on the diseased salmon in the Yukon River, Tim Rutten's and Matea Gold's articles on NBC's Tim Russert, Steve Lopez's health column, and so forth.

But pretty soon, these will either disappear or be much diminished. After all, Sam Zell is in charge.

Rutten's retrospective on Russert, by the way, reminded one of the much better columnist Rutten used to be, before he was enticed away from Calendar and his media columns and onto the Op Ed page, where he has been mishandled, as most of the columnists are, by Nick Goldberg. Calendar was his home turf, and it was a mistake to give it up. But then, Stanton, in his supreme foolishness, also got rid of editor John Montorio too, so all of Calendar is much diminished. (Rutten, by the way, is announced today as the winner of this week's Hubert Humphrey $10,000 prize for his articles defending the First Amendment).

Can anything stop Zell now? I'm tempted to say, only if he chokes on some of the bad Chicago food he eats. This man is a car wreck, zooming out of control. But he will still come out of it with his $315 million investment and then some.

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1 Comments:

Anonymous Anonymous said...

Er, you're kidding, right, when you said: "But then, Stanton, in his supreme foolishness, also got rid of editor John Montorio too, so all of Calendar is much diminished."

If you had any sources left in the building, you would know that Stanton got a standing ovation for this move. Best first move he could of done. Montorio was absolutely loathed and no one -- save his petted few -- was sorry to see him go. He took credit for others' ideas and made life miserable for pretty much everyone in features.

The only thing Calendar lost by his removal was a bloated salary.

6/17/2008 7:04 PM  

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