Tuesday, December 9, 2008

Not the Cut of Our Jib

Sam Zell couldn't win. People said newspapers were out of date, so he told his editors to try to make them connect better with younger and occasional readers, and for that he was pilloried. People said newspapers were caught up in their past glories, and he told them to stop living in the past, and for that he was pilloried. People who say newspapers are dead sneered at him for saying he could revive them, and people who believe in newspapers sneered at him because he didn't treat them with sufficient respect.

This is a different question than the ethics of Sam's being given Tribune employees' retirement funds by an ownership desperate to cash out, and then using those funds to try to enrich himself. Bankruptcy will probably trim Sam's total profit off this deal, but he'll doubtless walk away with money that his employees in essence forfeited.

But why did Sam's efforts to remake newspapers draw such outsize derision -- more than is given to Gannett's layoff this month of 2,000 people, or the impending destruction of the Minneapolis Star Tribune by people who also overpaid, or the withering away of JRC and Gatehouse, or... or... Let Roger Ebert tell it, parenthetical matter mine:

"At least it can be said that Lord Black [who looted the Sun-Times and many other newspapers around the world to line his own pocket] was a newspaperman with taste, and a gifted writer. ... There is no evidence [Zell] had other than a financial interest in his purchase. He has discussed condos in Tribune Tower, the sale of the name of Wrigley Field as a corporate naming opportunity, and other ways to milk his mortgaged cow. ... Under Zell its current leadership 'team' includes a onetime radio promotion manager [Lee Abrams] who writes memos so badly the staff passes them around for a laugh. Zell recently observed that no paper ever made money because of its Pulitzers. I would add that no paper ever made money because of its putzes, which Zell has proven. The lesson here is that journalists create newspapers, and their owners should be in sympathy with that purpose. Sam Zell made his purchase because he wanted to make money."

As opposed to Avista Capital Partners, or Gannett, or Dean Singleton, or the Alabama public pension fund, or the investors in the Philadelphia papers? Other than his financial missteps, Sam made three mistakes. He openly dissed a journalist in a public meeting when she started talking about the Higher Calling, using a word that we say almost hourly in the newsroom but do not expect our publishers to say to us. He brought in a radio guy (Radio!) to tell newspaper people what to do. And he didn't simply start by buying the Allentown Morning Call and the Newport News Daily Press -- nice papers, but nothing more. He bought two of the most iconic names in the business, papers that had set the standard for the industry -- the Chicago Tribune and the Los Angeles Times -- and treated them as if they were the same as the Allentown Call and the Newport News Press.

Of these, probably his biggest mistake was his creative officer, Lee Abrams, who by newspaper standards simply could not write. He wrote all-caps growling memos in which he had some good ideas, some mediocre ideas, and some pap. He did not write the usual journalistic report or memo which contains some good ideas, some mediocre ideas, and some pap. Few read his ideas, because they COULDN'T GET PAST his WORDS... his punctuation and his HIGH FIVING MANNER... yeah, baby! Admittedly Abrams' lack of understanding of what a foreign dateline meant busted him among journalists. Journalists also should have asked themselves if the typical reader shared Abrams' lack of understanding, or at least of attention. But these guys came across as characters from "Glengarry Glen Ross." We did not want them seated at our table.

Sam probably could have been hailed as the savior of the newspaper business if he had told his newsroom that his aim was to again make the Chicago Tribune "The World's Greatest Newspaper," to restore the L.A. Times of yore, and had turned to an eminence grise -- bringing back a John Carroll, say -- for cover while he did the same things to Orlando, Fort Lauderdale, etc. that he did. He could have said he wanted to end Tribune Co.'s micromanagement, which he did do, but could have said he wanted to do so simply to enable good journalism, while at the same time still selling Newsday to a cable-TV company (the relative lack of criticism for this deal shows that almost no one grew up dreaming of working for Newsday). He could have bowed before the house gods, established his cred, while sending Abrams off on quiet tours of the provinces. A year later, based on research done there, changes would have been made to the Chicago Tribune. Would it have staved off bankruptcy? Probably not. But he would have been hailed as a titan who tried to save newspapers, instead of a buffoon.

Zell was Tony Ridder with all of the communication problems and none of the occasional grace notes, let alone a century-long family heritage in the business. He saw newspapers as a business but didn't see that for journalists they are dreams -- of public service, of righting wrongs, of writing prose that will move the masses, of playing in the big leagues at 435 N. Michigan Ave. the way others dream of playing in the friendly confines of Wrigley Field. He probably did want to make money and save his newspapers at the same time, but his ego was so large that he did not realize his role in the drama was to publicly, at least, put himself second to his newsrooms. Different languages. Is it really better to be bankrupted by a bandit who can write stories than by a bumbler who cannot? (Well, you probably feel better if your house is robbed by a Gentleman Burglar than by an armed thug.) And one analyst at the time said Zell was pursuing "a childhood fantasy" himself -- owning newspapers. Perhaps all this was his dream as well. Perhaps he simply didn't understand the price of admission to the theater on which such dreams were played out.


Mark Potts said...

Very well said. There's some truth in this that a lot of journalists really don't want to hear--but need to.

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