The other shoe drops in Chicago

wELL, THE GOOD news is that Tribune found a buyer. The bad news, for some anyway, is that the Chicago company still owns the Los Angeles Times. Sam Zell (Forbes No. 158), the real estate plutocrat who won the auction, says that he is only in it for the money, and will leave the journalism up to others.

But maybe that is good news. It is a sign of hope that a frankly yield-oriented investor wanted this big news company. The favorite at the LAT was Eli Broad (No. 119), the LA philanthropist and art macher who with Ron Burkle (No. 369) had the runner-up bid. A local billionaire always seems preferable to one from out of town. My art-world friends were less optimistic, citing Broad’s passive-aggressive role at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, where he has given a new building, but has pointedly not donated his spectacular collection of modern art.

Meanwhile, the journalists in LA continue to run back and forth like animated penguins on a melting ice pack. This is a nervous group: Starting in the late ’90s, alarmed by the then CEO, Cap’n Crunch Willes, and the intrusion of "product managers" in the newsroom; reassured by the Chandler family, stampeded by sneaky deal for a Staples Center issue of the magazine further enflamed by an e-mail from Otis Chandler in which he referred to this debacle as “utterly stupid”; betrayed by the Chandlers who then sold Times Mirror to the Tribune; calmed by the arrival of the great Pulitzer-magnet John Carroll and (if I don’t say so myself, the SND clearly has for the last three years) a great redesign with Joe Hutchinson; once more driven to the edge of the iceberg by Carroll’s departure; soothed by his replacement, Dean Baquet who, it had first seemed, sold out to get the job, but who then quit when the Trib forced staff cuts, which restarted the get-out-the-resume panic as the fat lady began singing in the wings of Tribune Tower, like the diva in Citizen Kane; reassured by the arrival of the professional, if somewhat powerless, John O’Shea from Chicago; irritated further by bloggers who stampeded the newsroom again over a special issue of the Sunday opinion section guest-edited by a Hollywood producer, Brian Grazer whose flack was having an affair with the opinion editor (string them up!); vindicated that the editor quit in disgust. . . . And now thrown back into confusion by another sale.

Last week, at the American Society of Newspaper Editors convention in Washington, I saw Michael Parks, the editor at the time of the Staples Crisis, who was fired by the Chandlers as though it was his fault. (He now runs the J-school at USC.) We talked about leadership in the newsroom, which is obviously part of the problem right now. Parks was an old-school thought leader, a distinguished foreign correspondent who enjoyed the respect of his peers. But Parks was unable to contain the convulsions in the newsroom during the Staples meltdown, which started the whole thing. And so we have to wonder if O’Shea can keep the place together, with a non-newsman owner and still the old corporate management, plus a debt load that can only bring more layoffs. All of this won’t be easy for the newest shareholders in the acquisition plan: the employes.

O’Shea has already announced another redesign, which is the last thing the paper needs right now. He’s set up a task force to study ways to make the paper more appealing to readers, and this might work if more of the journalists gets involved. (Recently in Denver I got to work with John Temple at the Rocky Mountain News. He let a great number of a new ideas rise up from the newsroom and get into the paper and Web site over a short six-month period. Surely Temple would answer O’Shea’s call, if he wanted to reach out for a little advice.)

Leadership can turn the sale into an opportunity and get the newsroom back to work. But the leadership cannot just be top down; individual journalists have to push to get more stuff in the paper (and Web site) that you can’t get anywhere else.

Tribune Company journalists will have a hard time settling down one more time, but the rest of us should take the sale as a positive turn in the downward spiral of the news media market value. While it would have been more comfortable if the buyer had been a lover of newsprint, like David Geffen, an early bidder who stills says he wants to buy the LA Times, although now that looks unlikely because there would be a huge tax charge.

In any case, the survival of the newsroom depends on a sustainable business — offline and online — not patronage. A number of others think that that there is cause for optimism:

Bob Kuttner(the editor of American Prospect, whom I first met at KPFA in Berkeley in 1971) is optimistic for an online solution in a reasoned piece in the Columbia Journalism review.

Steve Ratttner, the reporter-turned-banker, suggests there may be a public-sector way to save newsrooms, such as a BBC public subscription model.

Kurt Anderson sees video as a way to use newsroom talent online, and with the disappearance of documentary footage from TV, there may be a market. (The Gannett chain has already started video training.)

Columbia assembled a one-day conference on the crisis in the news media—print, web and TV. Mulling hrough the issues, participants came up guardedly optimistic about the inevitable digital convergence.

A few months ago the prevailing sentiment was the news media would fail to find a new business model. Sam Zell thinks otherwise.

It’s going to take a lot of work to prove him right.

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