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Sam Zell may be in over his head

Tribune's new boss looks like old boss

From the great state of Illinois, a maverick has burst onto the scene preaching a powerful message of change and the need for fresh thinking about entrenched problems.

Let’s just hope Barack Obama is truer to that ideal than Sam Zell has been.

Zell, who made a fortune in real estate, saw an opportunity and pounced in assuming control of beleaguered Tribune Co., and at first, even constitutionally skeptical, grumpy old journalists were inclined to give him the benefit of the doubt. Newspapers and TV stations, after all, are obviously flailing in the face of a technologically altered world. Maybe a fresh set of eyes could help break the pattern.

Sure, Zell’s salty language — expressing an affinity for strip clubs (or at least their ads), and telling employees of the Los Angeles Times, “The challenge is, how do we get somebody 126 years old to get it up? Well … I’m your Viagra” — seemed purposefully designed to shock. After repeated cycles of layoffs and a revolving door of top editors, the genteel approach hadn’t worked, so why not try sterner stuff?

Thus far, however, Zell and his merry band of new managers — many of them graduates of Clear Channel, the massive radio and TV firm — look dangerously over the heads. Their response to what ails Tribune, moreover, has a musty old-guard smell, as they continue responding to bad news by hacking away at the staff.

The one novelty involved hiring an “innovation editor,” Lee Abrams, whose cheery memos sound especially tone deaf given management’s behavior, though they have injected unintended comedy into Tribune’s otherwise gloomy malaise.

To be fair, Tribune is hardly alone in its struggles, on the print or broadcast side. Indeed, while newspapers have gotten most of the ink from self-obsessed scribes, TV stations’ woes were starkly highlighted by Pappas Telecasting — a once-mighty group of network affiliates — which in May filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection for nearly half of its 30 stations. Take it as a grim sign that local TV is no longer the automatic money-printing enterprise the business once was.

Zell’s entrance initially fostered some optimism that a private, entrepreneurially minded owner might spare Tribune from the slash-and-burn mentality that has arisen as old-media stalwarts like newspapers and TV try to satisfy Wall St.’s growth demands despite shriveling business models. Far from the longer-term view that Rupert Murdoch, say, has embodied by going against the grain to pursue newspapers like a toy-train set, the new Tribune team has mixed naivete with arrogance — always a corrosive concoction.

The latest salvos included seeking to boil reporters’ productivity down to totaling bylines and column space, which smacked of old-fashioned bean (or inch) counting, without regard to context or impact; placing the Times’ magazine under the aegis of the business side; and shrinking Tribune papers’ news hole to achieve a 50-50 advertising-content split, evoking images of a stupid crook holding a gun to his own head while warning, “Take one more step and I’ll shoot!”

As for brainstorming, other than Abrams’ comedy act and the stopgap measure of tossing more graybeards out the door, the industry’s still waiting. Hoped-for synergy between TV and print — a strategy Tribune touted back when it acquired Times Mirror in 2000 — hasn’t materialized. The only real development there, in fact, is that TV station employees finally sound every bit as miserable as print counterparts, which isn’t exactly the sort of solidarity that qualifies as progress.

Nobody can fault Zell for an ability to magically conjure a cure for the creeping virus sapping the financial vitality of journalism — whose headaches mirror the music business, where there’s plenty of demand for the product but not a corresponding willingness to pay for it. The main source of irritation hinges on how Tribune has run roughshod over employees for failing to rapidly redesign a crumbling template that Zell’s gang clearly has no idea how to repair, either.

Granted, it would have been nice to come into the job with a better plan, but it’s too late for that. At a minimum, then, a touch of humanity and humility is warranted, given that despite all the big talk, the new boss looks just as flaccid as the old ones.

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