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American Journalism Review
Sam Zell's Bad Medicine  | American Journalism Review
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From AJR,   June/July 2008

Sam Zell's Bad Medicine   

Online Exclusive>>His prescription for saving Tribune's papers is a ticket to oblivion.

By Rem Rieder
Rem Rieder (rrieder@ajr.umd.edu) is AJR's editor and senior vice president.      


It must have looked so easy from the outside:

These stodgy old publicly held corporations running newspapers just don't know what they are doing. Clearly some sharp, nimble, entrepreneurial private operators could turn these ailing behemoths right around.

Back when he put together a group of local investors to purchase the Philadelphia Inquirer and Daily News, Brian Tierney said there would be no more of the knee-jerk cost-cutting that characterized the final years of Knight Ridder ownership. Instead, Tierney & Co. would invest in the product. What a concept.

It wasn't long before an advertising turndown reared its ugly head, and the brash new owners were slashing and burning. (When AJR business columnist John Morton and I pointed out the irony (see Full Court Press and The Newspaper Business February/March 2007), former CQ President Neil Skene wrote somewhat incredulously that we seemed to be waxing nostalgic for the days of Tony Ridder!)

When Sam Zell was taking over Tribune Co., he talked dismissively about the management skills of the old Tribune leadership. But it wasn't long before he was downsizing his new properties.

Now Zell is talking about implementing a 50-50 split between news and advertising, which would mean 500 fewer pages in Tribune papers each week. And Chief Operating Officer Randy Michaels says it's time to "right-size" the operation, which means fewer and fewer staffers for papers like the Los Angeles Times, whose roster has already been trimmed repeatedly.

But not to worry. Lots of those ink-stained wretches aren't bringing much to the party anyway. Reporters at Tribune's smaller papers are much more productive than those at the overstuffed Times. "We can eliminate a fair amount of people, while eliminating not much copy," Michaels told the company's creditors, according to the Chicago Tribune.

Beautiful.

Nothing could showcase more vividly how little Zell and his peeps know about the newspaper business. It's not the same as an assembly line. "Productivity" isn't measured by byline counts (what a pernicious idea) and column inches. The contribution of staffers is measured by the quality of their work. Accountability reporting, so crucial to newspapers' raison d'etre, is labor intensive. It takes a lot of time--a lot more than knocking out four quick hitters a day.

There's no doubt that these are troubling times for the mainstream media. The impact of the Internet is huge, and permanent. Media companies have to shed the shackles of the past, to think boldly and creatively, to adapt to the new and fast-evolving world.

But if all you're bringing to the table is mindless ax-wielding, why bother? There's no way drastically weakening your product in a bitterly competitive media landscape is a recipe for success.

In-depth, hard-hitting enterprise efforts are one of the key offerings that differentiate good newspapers and their Web sites from their numerous competitors. They are an important component of the brand.

I just finished Denis Johnson's brilliant Vietnam novel, "Tree of Smoke," so maybe that's why the devastating comment from the tragic war in Southeast Asia comes to mind:

Sam Zell wants to destroy the village in order to save it.

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