Sam Zell is the charismatic CEO of the Tribune Company. Charismatic in a way only journalists would appreciate, which means he's always cursing about something. It's amazing how a quick "fuck you" has kept his staff charmed. But after yesterday's Newsday cuts, Sam Zell's "Fuck Yous" are more than straight talk—he's really going to fuck his employees.
Late last month, Sam Zell said "fuck you" to a questioning journalist. When his Chicago Tribune ombudsman chastised Zell for being a jerk, Zell played the crumbling-institution-that-is-journalism card, saying, "this business has been eroding before your eyes and you're worried about my language?"
If another media CEO showed such blatant disregard for his ombudsman, there might be outrage. But Zell's utter disdain for his internal critics is somehow appealing. And if Zell's language could save journalism, there would be no need to worry. But "fuck you" is just as hollow as any other corporate slogan.
Since taking over the Tribune Company in April, Zell has acted like any other media boss. Namely, he's made job cuts.
Take the L.A. Times, which in the past few years has had more editors than Rupert Murdoch has had wives. When EIC James O'Shea was fired last month, he blamed L.A. Times publisher David Hiller and praised Zell, writing in his departing memo, "when Sam Zell [CEO of the Tribune Co.] understands how asinine the current budgetary system is, he will change it for the better, because he is a smart businessman." But of course, Zell doesn't understand how "asinine" the budgetary system is; he supported Hiller.
O'Shea's chief problem with the L.A. Times was the expectation to create worthwhile journalism with fewer journalists. But Zell doesn't have a problem with this system at all. Soon after O'Shea left, Zell cut 150 jobs from the L.A. Times.
Obviously the media landscape is evolving. Layoffs seem, so far, inherent in the change from print to online journalism. So when Sam Zell says, "you can do your internet thing. I'm technologically infuckingcompetent" the Tribune staff should not be laughing. Because the joke is on them.