Citizen Zell

The gruff new Sun-Sentinel owner came to town, but you won't read about it in our local daily

Good, tough question.

Zell, who stood behind a podium, said all he wanted to do was make enough money to be able to afford the journalists who make up the "heart and soul" of the business.

"You need to in effect help me do that by being a journalist that focuses on what our readers want and therefore generates more revenue," he said.

"Readers want puppy dogs, but we also need to inform the community," Fajardo interjected.

Zell shifted behind the podium.

"I'm sorry, I'm sorry," he began, "but you're giving me the classic, what I would call journalistic arrogance by deciding that puppies don't count. I don't know anything about puppies. What I'm interested in is how can we generate additional interest in our product and additional revenue so we can make our product better and better and hopefully we get to the point where our revenue is so significant that we can do puppies and Iraq, OK?"

As the journalists in the room applauded, Zell stepped back a bit and said to Fajardo, "Fuck you."

The video is funny, but it's also a bit scary for Zell's minions. Might his demand that reporters give readers what they want to gain revenues indicate he's not serious about good journalism? And could the reference to "journalistic arrogance" and the two-word curse reveal a contempt for reporters?

Or was it straight talk from a newspaper owner who might just save a declining business with a fresh approach?

That's the question Tribune employees are left to ask themselves — and even their professional well-being and livelihoods may hang in the answer. As one Sun-Sentinel reporter told me, "People are freaked but don't know why. Just a general feeling of dread, I think."

I wonder if that has as much to do with Zell as with the state of newspapers in general. Any newspaper staffer who is paying attention should feel a good bit uneasy. Ad revenues are dropping. Stock prices at other newspaper companies — including Miami Herald parent McClatchy and the New York Times Co. — have gone into the toilet.

Zell took Tribune private with an $8.2 billion deal in December. With the continuing decline in the industry and clear signs of a recession, an easy argument can be made that the company is worth much less. For comparison, the entire McClatchy company — which owns 31 newspapers — has a market capitalization right now of just $850 million, a little more than one-tenth of what was paid for Tribune. It was valued at four times that at the beginning of 2007 and more than $6 billion a few years ago.

It's not an easy time to own a newspaper, and you have to wonder if Zell really knew what he was getting into this time.

But Zell doesn't seem worried. He just keeps dropping jaws on his newsroom tour. Last week he visited Los Angeles, where he said staffers were free to watch porn at their desks (so long as they notify him of any good sites) and announced that "it's un-American not to like pussy."

While the future under Zell seems wildly uncertain, one thing seems clear: The old regime wasn't about to turn things around on either the journalistic or financial front. With Zell, there's a glimmer of a chance of that happening. And even if he fails, there's a bright side.

"Odds are he turns out to be clueless about how to save newspapers," LA Observed blogger Kevin Roderick recently wrote, "but the Zell era at least looks like it will be fun to cover."

Even if the Sun-Sentinel misses it.

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