Zell must be hell for journalists, but the new Tribune owner is suddenly making all the right moves 2/4/08Posted by Steve Boriss in Tribune, Zell.
When billionaire real estate magnate Sam Zell first announced his plans to take over the Tribune’s newspapers and broadcast TV properties, it showed all the signs of a disaster. His stunningly off-base statement that Google’s profitability came from stealing newspapers’ content suggested he was about to run his papers into the ground out of total ignorance, or allow the ignorant to tell him what to do.
But now it looks like he has decided to do what he does best — operate like a businessman — and his news properties must be given at least the possibility of survival. Oh, how his remarks last Thursday at the Orlando Sentinel, “sprinkled with expletives” we are helpfully told, must have stung. “My view of journalism is that I want to make enough money to afford you,” he told employees. He demanded massive changes, innovation, fresh ideas, bold action, an entrepreneurial culture. He wanted his employees to be activists for reform. He would give greater autonomy to each news outlet, but it would then be up to them to deliver financial results. Those who made money for the company would be rewarded. Feedback would be direct, success would be recognized, and the Tribune would become a functioning meritocracy. Then, for journalists, came the cruelest cut of all — the papers should focus on what readers want.
Will it work? The odds are still against it. Sam Zell is no Rupert Murdoch, a man who truly understands the news business. It’s not like the ranks of journalists are filled with frustrated, would be entrepreneurs. Or that most can “think outside the bubble” of Modern Journalism’s failed and no longer credible claims to objectivity and verification. Given the toxicity of Old Media culture, it might seem easier for him to succeed if he replaced his newsrooms in each city with the first 200 people in the local phone book than continue to employ those who have inhaled it. But, Zell has put the right incentives in place, and fear can be an effective motivating factor. For the opportunity he has offered them, no one at the Tribune should be complaining, with or without sprinkled expletives.