Sam Zell: Grave Dancer

The venerable Nikki Finke over at the NT's sister paper in L.A. has an interesting take on the Zell purchase of the Tribune Co., likening it to a mob takeover, with Zell as Tony Soprano and Tribune CEO Dennis J. FitzSimons playing the role of his new consigliere. She notes that his nickname is the "Grave Dancer," because he made his fortune buying up seemingly dead properties. You know, like Tribune Co. Here's an excerpt:

Someone asked FitzSimons what's "the vision" for the Trib's newspapers under Zell. "Basically, we never got around to discussing a vision for the papers," FitzSimons replied. I'm told a palpable shivver went through the Los Angeles Times newsroom among reporters and editors listening to those words. In all the news about Zell buying Tribune Co., I find this the most troubling. The reason is clear: this was a deal all about money, not about journalism or television or sports or any of the infotainment product that the Trib owns. FitzSimons alone is supposed to pocket $21+ mil. I told ya -- these guys are no better than Tony et al.

Finke made some phone calls to the offices of the Tribune-owned L.A. Times:

Talking to LA Times staff today, I'm hearing

similar responses to the Zell/Trib deal: "Horrifying". "Scary". "My resume is out". "My resume isn't out because I don't want to leave L.A." As a senior editor told me, "You can argue it both ways. People say, well, anything's better than what we've got now. Then there are others who say, wrong, wrong wrong, because things can always get worse." So it's with a long sigh that, based on my reporting today, I come to this conclusion: the deal is wonderful for the Chicago billionaire and media managers, and terrible for the Trib employees.

And she provides this bleak assessment:

... you have to take into account that the same Tribune management who've been making all those bad decisions -- FitzSimons et al -- are still going to be in charge. At least, if Zell's affirmations to keep current management in place are to be believed. And why not? By all accounts, Zell is in this deal for the money -- not to exert his influence over the media outlets. Zell just isn't interested in power and influence. He cares only about cold hard cash. So the same people who want to cut the bejesus out of the personnel and budgets of the Los Angeles Times will continue to have free rein now. And the explanation proffered will be to trim all that damn debt the company took on. I anticipate that's going to force management to make even more cutbacks than they had previously anticipated.

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