Tuesday, January 22, 2008

Is Sam Zell Already Speaking With A Forked Tongue?

Giving Tribune Managers Autonomy Could Be Way To Give Him Cover When Tough Decisions Are Made, As James O'Shea Finds Out

The Sam Zell honeymoon may be coming to a crashing thud, now that James O'Shea has been shown the door at The Los Angeles Times.
Zell, the new chieftain of Tribune, said he was firmly behind the decision by Times Publisher David Hiller to replace O'Shea after just 14 months at the helm.
In a rare public bout of he said-he said O'Shea said he was fired. Hiller called it a mutual decision, though he told The Wall Street Journal "at some point it is more semantic. The fact is we didn't see eye-to-eye."
O'Shea lasted 14 months, after coming to Los Angeles from the Chicago Tribune, where he had been a good corporate soldier without eviscerating the newsroom.
But the X factor is ultimately Zell, who said all the right things when he formally took control of Tribune last month.
To wit:

"I'm sick and tired of listening to everybody talk about and commiserate over the end of newspapers. "They ain't ended and they're not going to end. I think they have a great future."

"If you look at my track record, I haven't spent much time disassembling anything, and I've spent my entire career building things."

But Zell also made no secret that he would return local control to Tribune properties, rather than trying to have beancounters in Chicago micro-manage the media empire. Which leads us back to Hiller, who is no dummy and knows that he'll be in charge only so long as he can right the Times' listing ship.
Inevitably, that means even more expense cuts, staff reductions and a shrinking newspaper. That meant exit O'Shea, who knows you don't reverse a paper's fortunes (and don't forget the Times still has a double-digit profit margin) by cutting out its heart.
What remains to be seen is whether Zell -- amid all his bombast -- and Hiller can be persuaded to feel the same way.

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