Monday, June 09, 2008

Now That The Smoke and Mirrors Have Been Hauled Away, We Can Finally See Sam Zell Sweat

Having $12.8 Billion in Debt Will Suck The Bravado Right Out of You

Like many in the media business, I've been pondering last week's pronouncements from Tribune big cheese Sam Zell and his Right-Hand Man/COO Randy Michaels about how the newspaper model was broken and, by cracky, they were going to fix it pronto.
The talking points: less news, fewer reporters, smaller papers, better Web sites. And they'll be a lot more maps and graphics so customers won't have to bother with such things as actually reading articles.
Nobody disagrees that Tribune has to do something to pay down its voluminous debt. Selling the Chicago Cubs and Wrigley Field (and kudos if they can seal the deal while the Cubbies still have the best record in baseball) will be one Band-Aid to a long-term problem for the company.
Before you rush off to vilify Michaels and Zell, they deliver up some hard truths that journalists have no choice but to swallow hard and accept. However, too many of their conclusions and what they're proposing smacks more of desperation than true vision.
The biggie in my book is Michaels' view of productivity as measured by counting bylines. "We can eliminate a fair amount of people, while eliminating not much copy," Michaels told the Chicago Tribune.
Spoken like the radio guy he is, not someone who's ever worked in a newsroom, which he hasn't.
Of course, any newsroom has its share of dead weight, but with the abundance of recent layoffs and buyouts, there can't be that much left. Michaels begs to differ. The end result will be even fewer bodies covering the news. But that's OK, the newshole will be smaller too.
Zell's going to impose a 50-50 ad/editorial ratio, excepting classifieds and preprints. Given the dropoff in ad spending, that'll inevitably mean less room for copy. And, ostensibly, even less of a reason to buy the paper.
Zell all but develops hives when he thinks about what a paper like The Los Angeles Times spends on national and foreign coverage. Suffice to say, he'd like to spend a lot less and get a better ROI on the millions the paper doles out to the A.P. and Reuters.
Bad move. Then again, so was wagering billions of other people's money that you could resurrect a media company just as the core of its business model was cratering.

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