During a meeting last week with Orlando Sentinel employees, the Tribune Co. chairman ended his answer to a photographer's questions about hard news coverage by directing a two-word obscenity at her. A video of the meeting made its way to YouTube and on Monday was on the media gossip website Gawker, which described Zell as a "salty billionaire."
It was classic Zell, longtime associates said, describing him as sometimes dismissive, occasionally insulting and always direct. Workplace experts said it illustrated how challenging it could be to change a corporate culture -- as Zell has vowed to do at Tribune, which has 20,000 employees -- without alienating its key assets.
"This is not the way to align anyone to your vision," said Warren Bennis, a USC business professor and co-author of "Judgment: How Winning Leaders Make Great Calls."
"Zell made the fundamental error of any change agent, which is you've got to have a reservoir of goodwill."
Last month, as part of his effort to re-energize Tribune -- which in addition to the Sentinel and other papers and television stations owns the Los Angeles Times and KTLA-TV Channel 5 -- Zell distributed a new employee handbook. In place of the leaden legal language of its predecessor were frank, no-nonsense, sometimes jocular directives. It was hailed as a refreshing signal that the new managers valued innovation and initiative.
The handbook urges employees to "ask your manager, supervisor, business unit head or anyone in Corporate any question you have regarding the business. Question authority and push back if you do not like the answer. You will earn respect, and not get into trouble for asking tough questions."
In Orlando, Sentinel photographer Sara Fajardo asked Zell at the staff meeting for his views on "the role journalism plays in the community, because we're not the Pennysaver, we're a newspaper."
Zell, standing at a podium, responded, "I want to make enough money so that I can afford you. You need to in effect help me by being a journalist that focuses on what our readers want that generates more revenue."
Fajardo told Zell that "what readers want are puppy dogs," presumably referring to soft feature stories. She added, "We also need to inform the community."
Zell shot back: "I'm sorry but you're giving me the classic, what I would call, journalistic arrogance by deciding that puppies don't count. . . . What I'm interested in is how can we generate additional interest in our products 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."
As he finished his remarks, he stepped back from the podium and muttered the obscenity.
Fajardo, who isn't visible on the video, declined to comment for this article.
Zell's spokeswoman, Terry Holt, said her boss wasn't offended by the photographer's questions but rather by Fajardo's "sarcastic tone" and that she turned her back on Zell as he was speaking. Holt added that Zell, who was out of the country Monday, had been trying to reach Fajardo to apologize "if he offended her in any way."
Chicago-based Tribune was taken private in late December in an $8.2-billion buyout engineered by Zell and made in conjunction with an employee stock ownership plan. The 67-year-old magnate has been visiting Tribune properties around the country, demonstrating his blunt, often profane style.
He has to be careful not to sabotage his agenda, said David Lewin, who teaches at UCLA's Anderson School of Management.
"If you speak up and get slapped down, you won't speak up again," he said. "But if you speak up and get supported, that would tend to make you speak up and make others speak up."
Zell will arrive in Los Angeles this week for meetings at KTLA and The Times.