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Daily Democracy

Ryan Blethen discusses the press, media and democracy. Daily Democracy is part of the Democracy Papers, a series of articles, essays and editorial opinion examining threats to our freedoms of speech and the press.

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December 12, 2007 9:54 AM

Tribune's new real-estate manager

Posted by Ryan Blethen

I finally read The New Yorker's profile of Sam Zell, which can be found here. For those who do not know, Zell is the real-estate mogul who is buying the Tribune Company, which owns numerous broadcast outlets across the country, and many metropolitan newspapers such as the Los Angeles Times, Chicago Tribune, Newsday, and the South Florida Sun-Sentinel. The transaction should be wrapped by year end, especially now that the Federal Communications Commission granted temporary cross-ownership waivers for the deal.

Dean Baquet, former Los Angeles Times editor now the Washington, D.C. bureau chief for the New York Times, said that the Tribune employees in L.A. want the sale to go through. They should be careful what they wish for. Life at the Los Angeles Times under Tribune has not been easy, but probably will not be much better as a Zell controlled company.

Zell did tell the New Yorker in November that the Tribune newspapers should be run by executives in each city. The hope that company headquarters in Chicago will leave journalists alone in Los Angeles has to be tempered with Zell's past actions, and what others close to him said about his pending purchase of Tribune.

Maggie Wilderotter, chairwoman and C.E.O. of Citizens Communications has been on three boards of Zell owned companies. She told the New Yorker that Zell is not driven by any notion of doing good journalism.

An important part of the Tribune portfolio is TV station. He's buying a media company that has assets other than newspapers.

She continued:

But that's not what drives Sam. His thought process throughout this whole thing has always been about the business proposition. I never, ever heard Sam say, 'I'm doing this because I love the Chicago Tribune,' or 'I'm committed to the city of Chicago.' It would have been totally out of character.

Not exactly comforting words for Tribune's journalists.

The folks at another Tribune newspaper, Newsday, should be even more suspicious of Zell. An unnamed source is quoted saying that Rupert Murdoch is warming up to Zell because he wants a piece of the Long Island paper. A troublesome partnership considering Murdoch's already extensive holdings in the New York City area. Murdoch's News Corporation owns two television stations, the New York Post and will soon have the Wall Street Journal.

Will Zell be a better owner than the current Tribune executives? I have no idea. What is worrisome is Zell's only other experience with the press. According to the profile he bought a 94 percent stake in a Cincinnati radio-station company in 1993. He paid down some debt, brought in new management then went on a buying spree after the Telecommunications Act of 1996. The company went from owning 17 stations to 234. Zell sold the chain to Clear Channel in 1999, making $1.3 billion.

Tribune employees should hold on. They might be in for a turbulent ride.

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