At Sam Zell's Tribune Company, Insult To Injury, NYT Reports
There have always been doubts about Sam Zell, real estate mogul, being the ideal candidate to run a major media organization like the Tribune Company. A total hardass without a background in journalism, Zell brought a heap of debt upon the company when he bought it in 2007, then set about downsizing the hell out of it.
David Carr's piece in The New York Times on Wednesday, entitled "At Flagging Tribune, Tales of a Bankrupt Culture" tells a story far worse than most had imagined.
It turns out that in addition to the job cutting and editorial page slashing, Zell and his executive team have created a boys' club in which professionalism has all but died and sleaze is the new currency. But nobody thinks a newsroom is like church, right?
An example of the lines being crossed: "A woman who used to work at the Tribune Company in a senior position ... said that [Tribune CEO Randy] Michaels and Marc Chase, who was brought in to run Tribune Interactive, had a loud conversation on an open balcony above a work area about the sexual suitability of various employees.
'The conversation just wafted down on all of the people who were sitting there.'"
This came after the employee handbook had been reworked to permit a "loose, fun, nonlinear atmosphere" that "should not be considered harassment."
Carr's piece describes a variety of lewd, tactless behaviors demonstrated by Tribune senior management, and provides insider support for the idea that Zell and his people have been partying like 18-year-olds while the organization implodes.
Wells, for his part, says that Carr's reporting is wrong and tainted by personal motives: "Mr. Carr has made clear that he is digging up these old allegations because he believes that decisions about the company’s management are about to be made, and he wants to influence those decisions," Wells wrote in a staff memo published by LA Observed.
In December 2008, Forbes published a story called "How Zell Killed Tribune." The piece, refuting Zell's bold talk of "building on the great heritage of the Tribune Co." says:
"Monday was a different story. Tribune declared bankruptcy in Delaware. Against assets allegedly worth $7.6 billion, Tribune Co. owes $13 billion. The "grave dancer" of real estate development was now the "grave digger" of the newspaper world.Bad economy or not, if it wasn't for Zell and the enormous debt load he packed on the company, Tribune Co. would be trundling along profitably.
In other words, Zell was the wrong man for the job. With great promises coming out of his mouth in late 2007 and early 2008 about a publishing revolution, he instead drove the company into the ground while desecrating its culture.
As newspaper analyst Ken Doctor told the Times:
“They threw out what Tribune had stood for, quality journalism and a real brand integrity, and in just a year, pushed it down into mud and bankruptcy. And it’s been wallowing there for the last 20 months with no end in sight.”