Sam Zell To Newspapers: Stop Acting Like PunksEmbattled Porfolio editor Joanne Lipman interviewed embattled Tribune publisher Sam Zell recently, in a dynamic meeting of the embattleds! Zell is a well-known asshole, but kind of lovable too (if you don't work for him), because he tells the hard truth no matter what. He admits that newspapers' business model was screwy and outdated. He admits that newspapers will never again be able to "break news" in print on a regular basis. He talks shit to Arthur Sulzberger. And he charmingly scoffs at the expensive pursuit of Pulitzers by newspapers that can't even cover daily news in their own cities:
SAM: I haven't figured out how to cash in a Pulitzer Prize. There was a day when a newspaper put "Winner of Pulitzer Prize" on the front page, and people flocked to read the Pulitzer Prize story. Unfortunately, I'm not sure that that's the case today But I also think that there are scale issues. In other words, I think that if the goal is a Pulitzer, it's in the wrong place. In other words, we're not in the business of, in effect, underwriting writers for the future. We're a business that, in effect, has a bottom line. So as far as we're concerned, I think Pulitzers are terrific, but Pulitzers should be the cream on the top of the coffee. They shouldn't be the grounds. And I think there are a lot of scenarios in the newspaper industry where the entire focus is on Pulitzers. The entire focus is on becoming an international correspondent. I mean, I know that because our newspaper sent somebody to Kabul to cover the "Afghan Idol Show." Now, I know Idol is the No. 1 TV program in the world, but do my readers really want a firsthand report on what this broad looked like who won the "Afghan Idol" Show"? Is that news?
Haha, not sure what that "broad" bit was about, but otherwise, Sam, you are correct! This is just like the final season of The Wire, where the asshole editor chases Pulitzers at the expense of real local news. And you know everything on The Wire is gospel! Perhaps NYT boss Pinch Sulzberger should take Zell's advice, too:
As of last night, the entire market cap of the New York Times [Co.] was $1.2 billion. And my question to Arthur, who I think is out here someplace, is if you want to be a charitable trust, be a charitable trust. If you don't want to be a charitable trust, then you've got to focus on producing a return for investors' capital, and it's just that simple. It worked in the old days because you could be a public trust and you could do well for your shareholders because you had a monopoly, and monopolies are wonderful. I mean, I think competition is terrific, particularly for all those guys out there. Me? I like monopolies. I'm just sorry I waited 60 years to get into the newspaper industry because the 40 I missed were great.
Well by god, this gnomish asshole CEO of a debt-ridden company just summed things up once and for all. Listen to him, Pinch. (Although you may also want to note that the reason papers like the LA Times can't afford to do Pulitzer-bait investigative stories any more is because Zell has cut staff to the bone.) [Portfolio] [The ridiculous postscript to this interview: as soon as Lipman went to the audience for questions, in came Jeff Jarvis (or is it Jim? Always get them confused) to complain about online persecution of himself. Read this, then consider this:
Hi, Jim [sic] Jarvis. Mr. Zell, first, I may speak for others here when I say I wish you would do this more often and talk publicly more often. It's great fun. I'm a journalist, and I got attacked in Salon this morning…or Slate this morning—I get them confused—for holding journalists responsible for the fate of journalists.
Meh.]