I was the first Los Angeles Times reporter to interview Sam Zell after he bought the newspaper's parent company, Tribune, in 2007. During our interview at the executive jet terminal at LAX, he was blunt, crude and profane. He started the meeting with an extended rant about Times columnist Steve Lopez, who wasn't present but had had the effrontery to drive up to Zell's Malibu hideaway when he wasn't there and do journalism by interviewing the housekeeper. But he also pledged to make the company bigger and stronger.
For the moment, I was a believer, as were many of my colleagues. We took Zell at his word that he thought of newspapers as "extraordinary brands....They're world famous, and I just don't think the newspaper industry as a whole has figured out how to capitalize or maximize those values." He portrayed himself as a partner with the employees. "I'm putting $315 million in, and I don't get any back unless you [employees] make money," he told me.
The outcome has been well documented. Zell soon became impatient with the complexities of managing for growth a business with declining revenues. He installed a management team of surpassing crassness, and they started managing through shrinkage. The terms of Zell's leveraged buyout left Tribune Co. hopelessly unstable, and it landed in bankruptcy in 2008, emerging only in 2012.
This pattern, in which a savior sweeps in with unbounded optimism to rescue a struggling news company, only to change course out of disillusionment and impatience, has played out over and over again. The most recent manifestation is at The New Republic, whose purported savior was the youthful and unimaginably wealthy Chris Hughes.
Hughes' money came from his early involvement with Facebook, which happened because he was Mark Zuckerberg's college roommate. But to read the puffery published at the time of his TNR acquisition in 2012, you would have thought he sprang full-blown from his mother's womb as a combination of Joseph Pulitzer, Henry Ford and Napoleon. For a particularly noisome tongue-bathing, see this New York Times Magazine vignette about Hughes by ex-TNR editor Andrew Sullivan. ("I felt as if I were a kid talking with a grown-up," wrote Sullivan, who is about two decades Hughes' senior.)
Hughes' claim then to "love print...because it's an incredible technology" evaporated under the pressure of implacable losses at TNR; he's cut its print schedule to less than once a month and now aims to convert the magazine into a "vertically integrated digital media company," whatever that is.
He's not alone in garnering praise for his audacity, followed by catcalls from former admirers when the dream fades. Pierre Omidyar, the billionaire founder of EBay, launched First Look Media as a new style of digital news company, staffed with such independent-minded journalists as Glenn Greenwald, with whom he pledged not to interfere. But he couldn't resist meddling, and soon discovered that independent journalists can't resist taking an independent approach to their bosses, too. Management of First Look was soon in disarray--as its own journalists gleefully reported--and Omidyar has sharply scaled back its ambitions.
Aaron Kushner was viewed as a savior when he bought the Orange County Register in 2012, pledging to expand the reporting staff and focus promotion on the newspaper instead of its website: An "aggressive, contrarian approach," media analyst Ken Doctor called it, a "readers-first, invest-in-content staffing strategy." Doctor found the approach "refreshing" and gave it, cautiously, "a chance of success." But no; the Register is staggering financially, in part due to Kushner's effort to launch a Los Angeles Register to compete with The Times, and his ambitions are in tatters.
The only sure thing is that the quest for a magic lozenge will go on. Plenty of millionaires and billionaires undoubtedly are waiting in the wings, infused with the self-image of problem-solvers, the desire to change the world as information moguls, and the thirst for lionization that comes from dictating popular opinion. And as news reporters and editors, we will keep hoping that they'll succeed.