Sam Zell, the no-bull billionaire who took over the Tribune Co. in December, swept in promising to turn around its troubled newspapers, including the Los Angeles Times, Newsday and The Sun in Baltimore.
Zell raised spirits and initially won some converts in the ailing media company. But profits have been plunging, and it's become much tougher for him to meet huge interest payments on the company's debt. And NPR has obtained a recording of a combative meeting Zell held with some of Tribune's top journalists in Washington that may help explain why many of them are deeply skeptical of him.
Journalists as 'Overhead'
"This is the first unit of Tribune that I've talked to that doesn't generate any revenue. So all of you are overhead," Zell said during the late February meeting with editors and reporters for the company's Washington bureau.
But Zell doesn't stand much on ceremony. He has already fired a bunch of executives at his Chicago headquarters and said he wants immediate, radical change at the company's 11 daily papers and 23 TV stations.
"Three guys in a garage create YouTube, and we've got 800 people in Chicago who don't know their ass from a hole in the ground!" he said at the February meeting. "You chronicle what we've done in 60 days, and I promise you the next 60 days will be even more tumultuous."
The Washington meeting was far from the first time Tribune employees have felt the sting of Zell's barbed words. At a news conference in January, he mocked an Orlando Sentinel photographer who pointedly asked him about newspapers' public service mission. He derided the photographer's "journalistic arrogance" — and then cursed at her when she turned to leave.
The recording of the Washington meeting gives fresh insight into Zell's annoyance at what he sees as the self-importance of conventional journalists. He says they're peddling goods the public just doesn't want to read: too much insider politics and Iraq, not enough local news.
Zell has invited ideas from employees. But he swatted away the Washington staff's suggestions and made it clear he thinks the bureau is bloated.
Does it "really require six people – or nine people – to cover the same Iraq story? I'm going to find out, and it's gonna be done one of two ways. I can do it or you can do it. Your choice," Zell told them.
Since then, the L.A. Times' Washington bureau has learned it must slice its staff from 47 people to 28 – part of deep, company-wide cuts. Yet Mathews says he's most concerned about the call for journalists to think of new ways to make money.
One of the first things I thought about was Time's Karen Tumulty. Her husband, I believe, works in the Washington bureau of the LA Times. Now, if you're Tumulty, and you have kids at or nearing college age, and your husband's job is looking very shaky, what are the odds that you will take a strong, principled stand on anything that might ruffle feathers above you, even if you were inclined to by nature? None at all -- you literally cannot afford to. Yet it's a big part of her job to take risks on occasion. And that situation plays out over and over again, considering how incestuous the political-journalistic household is. It's a situation perfect for creating tame, cowardly people who are more focused on pleasing their bosses than fulfilling the public service part of their job. And the situation at Tribune Co. is happening everywhere in the world of print journalism, which is all but collapsing. Zell might be a crude asshole, but he's just the messenger here -- the world of journalism is changing forever, and at least in the short run, not changing for the better. These people are already stretched thin intellectually, and hardly have the wit to do more than type out whatever they are told, without doing any critical thinking at all. Cutting their numbers isn't going to improve that, whatever affect it might have on the bottom line of their publications. There's a national bottom line here as well, it's called "the public interest," it's been deeply in the red for years, and ain't no Sam Zell, or anyone else, going to come along to buy it out. We have to figure out a way to do that ourselves.