Questions multiplied Monday in Tribune Co. newsrooms as employees tried tohandicap their futures in a business controlled by Chicago billionaire Sam Zell.
The deal accepted by Tribune's board late Sunday would make the company's20,000 employees owners of a private media enterprise saddled with so muchdebt that job cuts are one of the few certainties.
"The prospect of more staff reductions is not appealing," said M. WilliamSalganik, health-care reporter at the Baltimore Sun, one of Tribune's fewunion properties. "We don't know what this means for the quality of ourproduct.
"We know very little about how the [employee stock ownership plan] willwork," said Salganik, president of the Washington-Baltimore Newspaper Guild."Something that gives us a real voice in governance and a chance to benefitwhen the company does well, that's a good thing. If it's just transferringrisk to us and giving us no voice, that's a bad thing."
Black humor -- "We're going to Zell in a handbasket" -- mixed Monday withhasty calculations of stock gains and losses and relief that the biddingprocess, at least, may finally be over.
"I feel more upbeat today than I have in a while," said South FloridaSun-Sentinel TV critic Tom Jicha, an 18-year veteran. "We haven't seen $34[per share] in the company in a long time."
Jicha figures his losses on Tribune stock in his retirement plan exceededwhat he earned over the past three years.
He worries about more job losses. He went to going-away parties in hisnewsroom at 10 a.m., noon and 2 p.m. last week -- a Friday ritual necessitatedby employee buyouts.
At the Los Angeles Times, where anger runs deep over Tribune-imposed cuts,some had hoped a competing bid by Los Angeles billionaires Eli Broad and RonBurkle would prevail.
Sports columnist T.J. Simers, who tangled with Broad and Burkle whilecovering their efforts to bring a National Football League team to LosAngeles, joked Friday that he would be forced into radio if the pair owned thepaper.
"Zell, I've only seen pictures of him. I think he's a handsome man," hequipped.
His jokes touched a nerve that runs through newsrooms. Will a rich privatebusinessman accustomed to calling the shots meddle in news coverage?
"Zell said his interest is economic, that it's not ideological orpolitical," said Baltimore Sun Editor Tim Franklin. "At this point, you givehim the benefit of the doubt."
Others were hopeful, too.
"Both I and most of the people I know are very willing to welcome with openarms somebody who sees a future in the newspaper business," said Los AngelesTimes financial columnist Kathy Kristof. "He is an intelligent guy. I'm neverworried about an intelligent person running a company. If he's not comfortablerunning a newspaper company, I think he'll sell it."
"Tribune became this corporation in which our newspaper began to seem sortof incidental," said Schmich, who also writes the daily comic strip "BrendaStarr." "If this restructuring restores any sense of our newspaper beingreally at the heart of what we do, great."