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Deal leaves workers anxious for answers
Questions multiplied Monday in Tribune Co. newsrooms as employees tried to handicap their futures in a business controlled by Chicago billionaire Sam Zell.
The deal accepted by Tribune's board late Sunday would make the company's 20,000 employees owners of a private media enterprise saddled with so much debt that job cuts are one of the few certainties.
"The prospect of more staff reductions is not appealing," said M. William Salganik, health-care reporter at the Baltimore Sun, one of Tribune's few union properties. "We don't know what this means for the quality of our product.
"We know very little about how the [employee stock ownership plan] will work," said Salganik, president of the Washington-Baltimore Newspaper Guild. "Something that gives us a real voice in governance and a chance to benefit when the company does well, that's a good thing. If it's just transferring risk to us and giving us no voice, that's a bad thing."
Black humor -- "We're going to Zell in a handbasket" -- mixed Monday with hasty calculations of stock gains and losses and relief that the bidding process, at least, may finally be over.
"I feel more upbeat today than I have in a while," said South Florida Sun-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 exceeded what he earned over the past three years.
He worries about more job losses. He went to going-away parties in his newsroom at 10 a.m., noon and 2 p.m. last week -- a Friday ritual necessitated by 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 Ron Burkle would prevail.
Sports columnist T.J. Simers, who tangled with Broad and Burkle while covering their efforts to bring a National Football League team to Los Angeles, joked Friday that he would be forced into radio if the pair owned the paper.
"Zell, I've only seen pictures of him. I think he's a handsome man," he quipped.
His jokes touched a nerve that runs through newsrooms. Will a rich private businessman accustomed to calling the shots meddle in news coverage?
"Zell said his interest is economic, that it's not ideological or political," said Baltimore Sun Editor Tim Franklin. "At this point, you give him the benefit of the doubt."
Others were hopeful, too.
"Both I and most of the people I know are very willing to welcome with open arms somebody who sees a future in the newspaper business," said Los Angeles Times financial columnist Kathy Kristof. "He is an intelligent guy. I'm never worried about an intelligent person running a company. If he's not comfortable running a newspaper company, I think he'll sell it."
Chicago Tribune columnist Mary Schmich struggled to reconcile her feelings about the newspaper she joined 22 years ago and the complex financial dealings that control its future.
"Tribune became this corporation in which our newspaper began to seem sort of incidental," said Schmich, who also writes the daily comic strip "Brenda Starr." "If this restructuring restores any sense of our newspaper being really at the heart of what we do, great."