I was the first Los Angeles Times reporter to interview
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
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.
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.