THURSDAY’S completion of the $8.2-billion transaction that transformed the Tribune Co. from a publicly traded corporation into a private, nonprofit organization owned by its employees, but run by billionaire investor Sam Zell, brought a disastrous journalistic experiment to an ignominious close.
Until Tribune acquired Times Mirror -- the Los Angeles Times’ then-parent company -- in 2000, no first-tier American newspaper ever had been run by corporate managers. It was an old industry truism that, while not all family-owned newspapers were great newspapers, all great U.S. newspapers were family-owned, as The Times had been since its founding. The question then was: Can a corporation -- and Tribune was about as corporate as an organization possibly can be -- successfully run a first-water paper.
Now we know the answer is no.
There’s no need to belabor the multiple reasons for that failure, but suffice to say that, as of Wednesday, there were only three places in the world where you still could find people who believed in the efficacy of Brezhnev-style bureaucracy and central planning: North Korea, Cuba and Tribune Tower in Chicago.
Zell has moved quickly to cut the organization’s Gordian knot, announcing he was taking over personally as chief executive and would assume direct supervision of The Times’ and Chicago Tribune’s publishers, who will be free to run their papers as local concerns, so long as they achieve an adequate financial performance. Since going private entailed taking on $13 billion in debt, that latter point will be a critical one.
It also needs to be noted that the newspaper industry’s recent flirtation with private equity has thus far born mostly unhappy results. Here in Southern California, important suburban newspapers like the Orange County Register (the Blackstone Group) and the Long Beach Press-Telegram, the Los Angeles Daily News, the Pasadena Star-News and the San Gabriel Valley Tribune (Dean Singleton) all have been savagely diminished since falling into their hands.
There are, in other words, no guarantees.
In an e-mail sent to Tribune Co. employees right after the sale closed Thursday, Zell signaled something concerning the spirit of change he intends to instill:
“We’ve now launched the boat together, and we have to start paddling. We’ve got a long way to go to shed all the things that tied us down in the past, and to realize the enormous potential we can create. You’ll see a lot of changes in the coming months.
“We will take intelligent risks and reward innovation.
“We will tear down bureaucracy and reward entrepreneurial spirit.
“We will compete fiercely but with integrity.
“We will work hard and have fun.”
Who could disagree? Though to borrow the maritime metaphor, when Cortes landed on the shores of the New World, he burned his ships so that his men would know that death was the only alternative to success. For the foot soldiers of American commerce -- like the 20,000 Tribune employees who have been drafted into serving as Zell’s co-investors -- that remains true, at least in a financial sense. But American capitalism being what it is, there’s always a comfortable way out for the guys at the top.
That noted, there’s nothing in Zell’s record to suggest that he’s anything but a man of his word, which makes his penultimate admonition of considerable interest. Journalistic integrity is a two-sided coin. One, more commonly acknowledged side simply enjoins reporters, editors and media executives to be honest and fair in the journalism they deliver to readers, viewers and listeners. As hard as that often is, it turns out to be the easy part.
The other side of the integrity coin is the demanding one, because upholding it requires media executives and proprietors, which is what Zell has become, to keep faith with their readers and their communities. That can mean restraining a desire for ever-increasing -- or arbitrarily set -- profits in the interest of maintaining a sufficient level of journalistic service to readers, viewers and listeners and the communities in which they live. This is the test of integrity, which every publicly traded newspaper company and local television and radio company has failed miserably at over the last two decades.
The era of corporate accumulation has been an unmitigated disaster for American journalism. Money has flowed like a fiscal Mississippi into the pockets of investors and fund managers, draining one newspaper and TV station after another of the resources necessary to serve their communities’ common good. Nearly every American newspaper and local television station sucked into one of the chains -- from the largest to the smallest -- during that period is today a lesser journalistic entity of less real service to its audience than when it was acquired.
That’s what makes Sam Zell’s daring purchase of Tribune not only a great financial opportunity but also a historic opportunity for American journalism -- a chance to demonstrate that private ownership can reestablish the link between good business and good journalism that initially was forged by familial proprietors.
Zell already has indicated that one of the keys to devolving control of Tribune’s newspapers to local managers is accountability. He plans, he says, to hold his publishers strictly accountable for their newspapers’ performance. That’s a great standard because it cuts two ways: Since he has assumed personal control of the Los Angeles Times and Chicago Tribune, the people of those cities can -- and should -- hold Sam Zell strictly accountable for the integrity and quality of their newspapers.
On a personal note ...
This is my last Regarding Media column. Right after the first of the year, I will begin a new assignment writing two columns each week for The Times’ op-ed page, though my weekly book review will continue to appear in Calendar. So too will Regarding Media, though the title will appear over someone else’s byline.
Regular readers will know that this column descends into the first person only when it can’t be avoided. This is one of those moments, as I’m obliged to express my personal thanks to the many people who have taken the time to write thousands of letters and e-mails that were thoughtful and thought-provoking. I have been very fortunate in my readers these past five years. So too in my colleagues, particularly Managing Editor John Montorio, who first asked me to write Regarding Media and has been unfailingly supportive ever since, and in Calendar Editor Rich Nordwind, who has edited the column on a weekly basis. It has been a genuine collaboration. Many of the best-read columns to appear during my tenure were written at Rich’s suggestion; all were improved by his editorial attention. Both Rich and I repeatedly were spared humiliation by our department’s diligently meticulous, erudite and long-suffering copy desk. As has been true through most of my 35 years at The Times, I have been extremely fortunate in my colleagues.