Tuesday, April 3, 2007

Joining Sam's Club

There's nothing like having a personal stake in a story to focus your thinking about how it is being reported.

One notable element of the story about the Sam Zell purchase of Tribune Company has been the different tones struck by the papers involved in the sale.

In Chicago, where the sale perhaps seems more personal, what was striking about the coverage was the line used a number of times (in its various manifestations of online and print) about the culture shock of having Zell, the "expletive-spewing businessman" coming over to the "buttoned down" Tribune company. (There were one hell of a lot of longsleeved oxford white or light-blue shirts in the Chicago Tribune's audience yesterday for the CEO's explanation of what was going on. Lots less color and variety of dress in that audience than the crowd I was standing in on Long Island. Who WERE those people in the crowd at Tribune?)

It was clear from some of the writing that the LA billionaires' bid was not viewed favorably in Chicago. And I really don't think the Chicago Tribune employees have ever fully comprehended the sting resulting from a takeover by an out-of-towner but the chance that it could happen was clearly making some of them uncomfortable.

From LA, we heard a lot of what sounded like quiet pleading that somehow, one of the LA billionaires might yet come up with a way to buy, if not Tribune, then at least the Los Angeles Times.

Neither of those observations is meant as criticism; rather I think they're quite honest portrayals of what matters most at two of the Tribune newspapers that are so apart, geographically and culturally.

This is the third time I've worked for a paper involved in a takeover since the late 1970s, all involving Times Mirror/Tribune --The Hartford Courant, privately held (with an ESOP, as I recall) taken over by Times Mirror, Times Mirror itself was consumed by Tribune in 2000 and now Zell has moved in.

I'll write more about this soon but meantime I have to look up the meaning of "subordinated note" and "warrants" as they apply to this deal.

Missing from virtually all coverage is the fact that these newspapers are all making money, tons of it. Non-newspaper people I know occasionally ask if I think paper Y will close because it's out of money. That's almost never the case; the issue is a. the future of the business as presently constituted b. Wall Street and its demands for even higher returns.

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