Why Sam Zell Avoids the 'Big Lies' of New Owners

By Fitzgerald, Mark | Editor & Publisher, December 21, 2007 | Go to article overview

Why Sam Zell Avoids the 'Big Lies' of New Owners


Fitzgerald, Mark, Editor & Publisher


(Commentary) When it comes to philosophers, the British like classically trained academicians, the French like contrarians with a radical political streak, and Americans, well, we like rich people.

He can be a heartless boss like Andrew Carnegie or a hateful anti-Semite like Henry Ford, or just a boring bridge player like Warren Buffet, but when a guy who has a ton of money starts to pontificate -- we Americans crane to hear every syllable. We weigh every word.

Sure, most of Rich Guy's pronouncements turn out, on examination, to be empty cliches, but this is a nation that has made best-sellers out of books spun around the most hollow of notions. Think "Who Moved My Cheese?" or anything by Napoleon Hill.

So it wasn't just the natural interest in the most unusual newspaper deal yet in a two-year period of jaw-dropping newspaper deals that drew a media crowd to Sam Zell's press conference at Tribune Tower Thursday afternoon.

There was also that billionaire thing.

Fairly or not, it freighted every word Zell spoke, even when he was cheerfully -- and occasionally profanely -- asserting that he really didn't know anything about the newspaper business, except that it was a business. And he knows business, so it stands to reason he knows the newspaper business.

At least I think that's a fair summation of what he said over the course of a half-hour of rapid-fire questioning.

Zell resists easy generalizations, even as he offered quite a few himself when pressed about what's next now that he engineered the $8.2 billion buyout and privatization of Tribune Co. with a personal investment of $315 million. There was, for instance, his summation of the newspaper business as coming down to the "Three R's:" relevance, revenue, and respect. And not necessarily in that order, he quickly added.

We journalists nodded. And wrote that down.

But that was better than the single time he offered a very specific suggestion for newspapers. They should put a url at the end of each article, you see, to direct readers to "learn more" at its Web site.

Uh, Sam, 1999 called, and wants its Big Idea back. (Geez, where the heck did I put my CueCat? …

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