BROOKE GLADSTONE: This is On the Media. I'm Brooke Gladstone. BOB GARFIELD: And I'm Bob Garfield. Sam Zell offered and the Tribune Company accepted – or, more, accurately, Tribune came knocking and Sam Zell agreed. Either way, the Chicago real estate magnate is on his way to owning 23 TV stations and 11 newspapers, including The Chicago Tribune, The Hartford Current, The Baltimore Sun, Newsday and, most prominently, The Los Angeles Times.
That paper has seen more than its share of high-profile shakeups in recent years. There have been scores of newsroom layoffs and resignations by top editors. But tomorrow is another day – or is it? Tim Rutten is the media columnist at The L.A. Times. He says a new owner may not be the cure-all some people are hoping for. TIM RUTTEN: It isn't exactly as if a lot of fairly bright people haven't been thinking about these problems for a long time. Newspaper managers and newspaper company managers have been in a sort of traumatic crisis of confidence for a long time now. They can't quite figure out – they can't see the future, and it makes them nervous.
So they're always looking for somebody to come in from outside with some different perspective that's going to, you know, bring the answer in. And there's some of that in the reaction to Mr. Zell's purchase of Tribune. BOB GARFIELD: The L.A. Times¸ on one level, is in the same fix that all large newspapers are. They're facing plummeting circulation, a dramatic drop-off in classified ads. On the other hand, there's also your paper's ongoing soap opera that probably has nothing to do [LAUGHS] with the troubles that ail the rest of the industry.
I mean, it seemed to begin when Times-Mirror hired - brought in an outside publisher from a consumer products company, General Mills - TIM RUTTEN: Mm-hmm [AFFIRMATIVE].
BOB GARFIELD: - thinking that it needed new blood. And you got some new blood, all right. TIM RUTTEN: You're referring to Mark Willes, who came to Times-Mirror having been the number two man at General Mills. And he was full of all sort of, you know, wisdom gained from the packaged goods trade. We got long talks about the different ways that they'd increased, you know, the sales of Betty Crocker cake mixes. BOB GARFIELD: [LAUGHS] TIM RUTTEN: So that was that era. But, unfortunately, the first thing he did for us was to lay off one in ten of my colleagues. That was pretty much his contribution, except for the notion that he was, as he liked to say, going to break down the walls, which meant essentially that he wanted to eliminate the separation between the advertising and editorial departments, which he found extremely inconvenient.
When he didn't get much sympathy for that, he and some of his colleagues went off on their own and negotiated a secretive arrangement in which the owner of the local sports arena, the Staples Center, was able to share in the advertising [LAUGHS] revenues for an edition of our Sunday magazine that was devoted to the opening of that building. Of course, nobody on the editorial side knew that that had happened. That was, I suppose, the beginning of the soap opera.
I mean, I was thinking, you know, in preparation for this interview, in the last seven years The Los Angeles Times has had four editors and four publishers, in seven years. BOB GARFIELD: You know [LAUGHS], so much for stability. TIM RUTTEN: Yeah.
BOB GARFIELD: Now, you did a piece recently in which, you know, for all of the problems that plague The L.A. Times, you seem to place the blame squarely in one place, and that is on the Chandler family. TIM RUTTEN: Well, you know, the Chandlers are a funny family. They're unlike, say, the Grahams or the Sulzbergers. Both the Grahams and the Sulzbergers have a kind of steward's ethic toward their newspapers. They understand that while they're obviously businesses, they're not only businesses.
The Chandlers always had a problem with that, that concept. The Chandlers' ethic, if you will, is more like a California developer. You know, they just sort of strip things and move on. BOB GARFIELD: Now, it could be the end of the year before we find out if Sam Zell actually does acquire the Tribune Company and The L.A. Times. So far, you know, what's your guess? Does he have a sense of noblesse oblige or do you think he's just a guy out there trying to make a fast Chandler buck? TIM RUTTEN: Well, I don't know about how fast. He says he's a long-term investor. But I take Mr. Zell at his word, and he has said that for him this is a purely economic opportunity. So if you think that the problems at The Los Angeles Times over the past few years are a product of an excessive preoccupation with high profits, we'll have to see what he thinks of as a reasonable return.
There is a great deal of talk continuing that Sam Zell may, in fact, spin The Los Angeles Times off to one of the local billionaires who has expressed an interest in buying it, David Geffen. BOB GARFIELD: Well, whether David Geffen or whether Sam Zell – as someone who is a student of the newspaper business of [LAUGHS] long standing, do you believe that the words "investment opportunity" and "newspaper business" really belong, in the year 2007, in the same sentence? TIM RUTTEN: Sure. Look, there are going to be newspapers around for a very long time, but the successful ones are going to be hybrid news organizations in which there's some sort of amalgam of print and online presentation of the news. It's clear that there are going to be some things we will continue to do best in print, some things we're going to do for our readers online on a 24-hour basis. And people will survive and prosper through this era because the most ingenious of all human qualities is avarice, and there's a lot of money to be made here. BOB GARFIELD: [LAUGHS] All right, Tim. Thank you so much for joining us. TIM RUTTEN: It was a pleasure to be with you. BOB GARFIELD: Tim Rutten is the media columnist for The L.A. Times.
"Fight for Your Mind"
by Ben Harper