Wednesday, February 27, 2008

Zell trumpets tearing down bureau walls

February 27, 2008

Break down these ... walls," Sam Zell told print and broadcast staff Tuesday at Tribune Co.'s Washington bureau, part of the boss' tour of the company's various media properties, and you can bloody well guess what the ellipsis is for if you've been keeping tabs on Zell's road shows to date.

It wasn't exactly Ronald Reagan at Berlin's Brandenburg Gate, but it was close.

Zell, Tribune's chairman and chief executive, wants to unify the company's Washington bureau, and he seems to feel diplomacy has gotten the company nowhere so far.

To Zell, the bureau isn't home to reporters from its Chicago Tribune, Baltimore Sun, Newsday and Los Angeles Times. Rather, it's a single, overstaffed Tribune Co. cost center that doesn't produce any revenue. According to several in attendance, Zell said the competing "fiefdoms" are an embarrassment.

Repeating recent comments about how the media business is in crisis, Zell said he recognized the importance of national news and news from Washington, but the bureau's structure is "unsupportable," and its "bloated" size is "unequivocally economically unjustifiable." And he singled out the Los Angeles Times' contingent.

"Sam thumped them pretty hard," one attendee said.

The grilling over Washington staffing is emblematic of a debate raging in media circles. Declining revenue is forcing outlets to reconsider how they allocate dwindling resources, what coverage is vital as opposed to a luxury and the price of sharing content.

Zell noted the Chicago Tribune has greater cash flow than the Times, but the Times has more than twice the number of staffers in the capital, at 54. Times bureau chief Doyle McManus corrected him, pointing out Los Angeles' number is actually 47. ( Chicago, it turns out, has 16.)

"Your revenue is down 20 percent," Zell fired back. "How many of the 47 did you get rid of?"

Zell also pointed out that that is far more people than have been covering California's Orange County in the Times' home market.

It was that kind of get-together.

With phone-message slips from media reporters seeking details piling up on his desk, McManus politely declined to talk about the meeting with Zell, the 90 minutes or so of informal give-and-take with Zell afterward or the briefing McManus held later with just his own rattled staff.

"Sam Zell likes to say his role is to throw bombs and shake people up. He's a man of his word," McManus said in a staff memo. "A number of us stayed later and got some more clarification and elucidation of what he meant. Short version: It shouldn't be taken literally."

Zell repeatedly has stressed since the December closing of the $8.2 billion deal taking Chicago-based Tribune Co. private that its individual business units need to be able to make, and be held accountable for, their own decisions, rather than be subjected to corporate decision-making from afar.

That, presumably, would make the Times' Washington staffing a decision for David Hiller, the Los Angeles paper's publisher, and Russ Stanton, its new editor. But Zell wants all Tribune papers to develop a new plan for Washington, starting with a "blank slate," saying his team will if they don't.

While he made it clear he sees it as a Tribune Co. bureau, not a collection of Washington bureaus, and wants it smaller, he indicated he has no specific idea what the bureau's ideal size would be or how it should work.

Neither Hiller nor Stanton responded to requests for interviews Tuesday, but the question of sharing of resources between the Times and other Tribune papers in Washington was put to Stanton shortly after his appointment two weeks earlier.

"I understand why Sam's asking the questions," Stanton told the Chicago Tribune. "I can see why someone would think that would be a good idea. I haven't had a chance [to consider it]. I've been in the job 21/2 hours.

"The trick is going to be: Can you do it in a way that doesn't strip each of the papers of its own unique ability to cover things that are important to them in the capital?"

Actually, when the walls come tumbling down, the trick might be to not get crushed underneath.


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