Citizen Zell

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

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).

Sara Fajardo, an earnest photojournalist with a master's degree and experience reporting in Peru, asked Zell:

"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."

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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