Zell Unloads on Newspaper Employees, Might Unload Newsday

Last Updated Mar 26, 2008 1:03 PM EDT

Watching the newspaper business self-destruct these past few years has been painful, like witnessing a horrible, slow-motion train crash. As one who's always liked newspapers -- and subscribed to lots of them -- I'm gonna miss them when they're gone.

Even now, I can't help but notice how few people in my neighborhood bother to subscribe to any newspaper any longer. I feel sorry for the delivery guys, because the San Francisco Chronicle, San Jose Mercury News, and even the New York Times have all become so light and skinny that they tend to blow away on the wind rather than reach my front door.

Maybe the strangest part of this sad saga has been the spectacle of otherwise successful businessmen who have been buying up these dying publications, like deck chairs on the Titanic: Sam Zell (The Tribune Company), Brian P. Tierney (the two dailies in Philly), Avista Capital (the Minneapolis Star), and of course, Rupert Murdoch (Dow-Jones).

What were they thinking?
Zell, probably the most outspoken of the group, is a real estate developer from Chicago. He's been blunt about his disappointment in his investments, which include The Chicago Tribune, the Los Angeles Times, and Newsday, among others.

"The news business is something worse than horrible," he's been quoted as saying. "If that's the future, we don't have much of a future."

Industry insiders and news reports say Zell is trying to unload Newsday, probably the most profitable part of The Tribune group, to recoup some of his losses.

Some Newsday staffers have been quoted hoping hope Murdoch will be their next boss.

"If I had my choice, I would take Rupert Murdoch ," said one "That may sound strange, but if you pair him up and compare him to the others, he comes out well above. Cablevision's Charles Dolan isn't anything -- nothing! He's brainless, clueless, stupid, arrogant. Murdoch is a newspaperman. Most people here would prefer Murdoch. A couple years ago it would have been a horrible thought, but now we're left with no other choice."

At an all-hands meeting with his employees at the Orlando Sentinel, captured on YouTube, Zell let off some anger: "You 'effing' people need to start listening to your audience and give them more of what they want!"

Then, at an all-hands at the Los Angeles Times, he was asked by an ad sales guy whether they could now start selling ads to adult mens clubs and gun stores. Zell responded, "Of course, why not? What are they going to outlaw next? P*s*y?"

  • David Weir

    David Weir is a veteran journalist who has worked at Rolling Stone, California, Mother Jones, Business 2.0, SunDance, the Stanford Social Innovation Review, MyWire, 7x7, and the Center for Investigative Reporting, which he cofounded in 1977. He’s also been a content executive at KQED, Wired Digital, Salon.com, and Excite@Home. David has published hundreds of articles and three books,including "Raising Hell: How the Center for Investigative Reporting Gets Its Story," and has been teaching journalism for more than 20 years at U.C. Berkeley, San Francisco State University, and Stanford.