By Michael E. Miller
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When newly minted media baron Sam Zell met with his Sun-Sentinel staff for the first time, there wasn't a word about it in the newspaper the next day.
Turns out, they missed a hell of a story.
At the January 31 powwow, the billionaire owner of Tribune Co. decried the use of drug tests on employees, basically announced he was going to get rid of a $750,000-a-year executive at company headquarters, and casually referred to Sentinel Publisher Howard Greenberg as a "motherfucker."
Zell's startling performance (for some of the more prudish among the newspaper's staff) affirmed what many in the newsroom had expected: Their new boss is unlike any other corporate journalist in the country.
No, scratch that. He's not a journalist at all, and he revels in being anti-corporate. The new, Zell-authorized Sun-Sentinel employee handbook, for instance, includes this passage:
" 'Because it's always been done that way,' and 'because it's a rule' and 'because I say so' aren't reasons for doing anything unless you've thought about it and it makes sense. There are many old rules and regulations and handbooks and manuals that will no longer be relevant to those working at the Tribune Company of today and the future."
Definitely not the same as the old boss, but pretty much par for a man who enjoys the nickname "Grave Dancer," earned for making profits from what seemed to be dying properties.
The Chicagoan made his fortune buying depressed real estate before parlaying a rather meager $315 million investment into an $8.2 billion purchase of one of the premier media companies in America.
To understand how paltry that sum is to Zell, consider that just last week he quietly invested more than twice as much into Starwood Hotels, which owns the Sheraton. So you could say he's twice the hotelier that he is a newspaperman.
Buying a piece of a hotel chain, however, doesn't make headlines (other than a few in the financial pages). Taking over a company that owns eight major newspapers (including the Los Angeles Times, Chicago Tribune, and Newsday), 23 television stations, cable's WGN, and the Chicago Cubs? That's made Zell the story.
It's his Citizen Kane move, a venture that could add Zell's name to the pantheon of media titans with names like Pulitzer, Hearst, Turner, and Murdoch.
But Tribune workers around the country, who number about 20,000, aren't concerned with Zell's legacy. They care about their newsrooms and their jobs. And right now, they are filled with either great hope or great fear — or a dose of both.
Great hope that the jeans-wearing 66-year-old billionaire will breathe life into a newsroom that has been deadened over the years by bland and bureaucratic leadership. Great fear that he doesn't have the slightest idea what he's doing and will soon cut a lot more jobs than just that overpaid exec he spoke of at the meeting.
And his tour of newsrooms across the country hasn't eased the tension one bit, with news of his in-your-face exploits largely confined to internet media sites like Romenesko, LA Observed, and Gawker. His Fort Lauderdale trip was detailed on The Daily Pulp, my New Times blog.
Visitors to the blog wrote that Zell and his right-hand man, former radio man Randy Michaels, made fun of corporate policies (including testing urine for drugs) and decried "mindless meetings" and ridiculous mission statements.
In the midst of it all was Zell's inglorious reference to Publisher Greenberg.
"Rest assured that he'll be known as 'the motherfucker' for the rest of his career at the S-S," wrote one anonymous commenter, who continued:
"It was actually quite fun looking at some of the veteran mid-level managers, lickspittles all, as they shifted uncomfortably in their seats or along the wall. They looked like lab rats suddenly caught in an experiment where the parameters have changed. What do I do now for food?"
Zell apparently had a profound impact on the older hands, who the commenter wrote "haven't used any brain cells other than those needed for parking their cars for years...
"The F-bombs visually unnerved many of these people. The vision of actually being cornered and asked for an idea surely gave many nightmares last night. One editor, who used to head the Palm Beach County office, looked like she was watching a porn film for the first time."
Compelling stuff, but the visual image of the elfin, bald, gray-bearded Zell was left to the imagination. That changed, however, on another stop that day, this time in Disney country, where Zell owns the Orlando Sentinel.
This time, his performance was taped — and the New York blog Gawker gave it some notoriety when it posted a snippet of the video showing Zell cursing at a staffer who asked him some rather aggressive questions (exactly the kind journalists are supposed to ask).
"I hear you guys talking a lot about revenues and the bottom line and all that, but I'm a journalist, and I kind of want to know what your viewpoints are on journalism and its role in the community, because we're not the Pennysaver; we're a newspaper."