Friday, December 21, 2007

Go To Zell

#336a Go To Zell

Maybe it's the only way a newspaper can survive. Get taken over by a mogul, either the top down type or the bottom up type. The moguls who own the New York Times made their money by doing newspapers. The are bottom up moguls. Sam Zell, new owner of the Chicago Tribune is a top down type. He made his money elsewhere and now has ridden in to save the day. Real estate guy. Not the first to buy a zombified group of papers. There was Mort Zuckerman, realty tycoon, top down mogul who owns the New York Daily News Zell, and he buys Tribune Co. along with which comes Newsday and the LA Times and a bunch of TV stations and a baseball team.

The Tribune itself is a storied mediocrity, kind of like Johnny Mathis and Fiats. Everyone knows them. Everyone. Few think much of them.

But the LAT and Newsday are not. At least, not yet.

Newspapering is like show biz. Everyone who buys one thinks he knows how to run it better. Sometimes yes, sometimes no. Zuckerman's Daily News isn't terrible. It's kind of pale has no real editorial position (which could be an advantage these days,) and sells a gazillion copies. The Washington Times IS terrible. It's owned by the Unification Church, which is owned by Rev. Moon, who also is a real estate mogul.

Rupert Murdoch bought Dow Jones the other day. He will not ruin the Wall Street Journal. Change it, yes. Wreck it, no. Rupert is a bottom up newspaper mogul.

Sam gave an interview to the Tribune the day the sale went through. He told the reporter he thought of himself not as the chairman and CEO, but as the owner. This is not a good sign. First off, it's not entirely true. There's an employee stock plan to be financed with new debt. If the house collapses, the mogul won't walk away unscathed. But he won't have more than a few cuts and bruises.

There's a whole chorus out there singing a funeral dirge for newspapers (and the Nightly 6:30 TV news.) Their dirging is premature. But circulation is down and papers have cut maybe 4,000 newsroom jobs nation-wide in the past ten or so years. That's a lot of jobs. And that's not a way to run anything. Maybe Sam'll swing the axe a bit, maybe not.

But a newspaper isn't an office tower, a housing development or a boatyard, and it can't be run like one. The guys who ran Tribune into the ground were busy not doing newspapering. In fact, no one quite knows what they WERE doing, other than thrashing around and trying to look important. Maybe Sam'll find some news guys to run the thing when he tires of playing with it or finds it's playing with him.

In the meantime, to the boys and girls at 202 W 1st Street in Los Angeles, the guys on Pinelawn Road in Melville, New York, and in Hartford and in Baltimore, and on Michigan Ave in Chicago: Don't make any major purchases just now. And learn the real estate business.

I'm Wes Richards. My opinions are my own, but you're welcome to them.
©2007 WJR

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