Friday, January 18, 2008

Zell’s a Hoot

Sam Zell has just purchased a large chunk of the Times Mirror empire, the Tribune company, and is threatening to make The Hartford Courant profitable. Ordinarily, commentators at the liberal Courant, once a cog in the wheel of Times Mirror, are suspicious of profits, usually earned by grasping billionaires who relish grinding the faces of the poor. But hard times in the news business have convinced even the most aggressive amature Naom Chomskyites that as their profits go, so go their paychecks.

So, the folk down there at the Courant – and other information outposts attached to the paper by media umbilical cords – are understandably anxious.

Zell, dressed in his signature cowboy boots, addressed these nervous nellies at the Bushnell Memorial, and the day after his address, all present were attempting to decipher his oracular pronouncements.

What, for example, can be read into those cowboy boots? Of late, especially in the European press whose fertile ground Arthur "Pinch" Sulzberger Jr. is busy tilling, cowboys have been somewhat spat upon, perhaps because most of Europe lies quaking under the crescent sword of Islam and President Bush is seen on this side of the ocean as the world's most reviled cowboy-in-chief.

According to a write-up in the Courant – now “owned,” sort of, by the employees – Zell “offered few specifics on what's in store for The Courant's readers and employees. That, in fact, was part of his point.

“Under Zell, after a leveraged buyout that leaves the company with $13 billion in debt, The Courant, WTIC-TV, Channel 61, and other Tribune businesses will fall under far less control from headquarters in Chicago, he said.”

So, a loosening of the reins is in the stars.

"Going forward,” Zell said, “by definition, there will be a lot of changes. I do not believe that anybody can grow a business by reducing the number of employees. It is not our game plan to, in effect, try and figure out how few people we can have run this business. The focus of everything that we're going to do is directed at one thing: generating more revenue."

Zell’s key lieutenant Randy Michaels, who oversees interactive publishing, broadcasting and most of the newspapers owned by Tribune, told the group that necessary change would involve a fundamental modification in business approach. The new news business would become "a 24-hour online interactive business that publishes once a day for the record."

When layoffs were broached, Zell lapsed into oracular metaphor: “A year from now, it's very likely there will be more people, but with different deck chairs.”

Ordinarily, if business is down, one attempts to capture a part of the market that has not been addresses in the business plan. In Connecticut, unfortunately, the interests of more conseravtive readers are not being addresses in the media. Zell, from what may be deduced from the Courant report, wants reporters to concentrate on the internet format for daily news and then republish newspaper stories in a more extensive and deeper format in the paper. But if the content is the same – which is to say, if the paper does nor reach out to readers it is not satisfying now – its readership will remain the same. To put it bluntly, the paper need to rethink who is sitting in those “chairs” that Zell wants to replace.
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