Monday, November 19, 2007

Of sentiment and principle

If you care about news and newspapers, you'll be interested in the long, intriguing profile of Sam Zell in the Nov. 12 New Yorker. (It's online here, but way easier to read in the magazine ...)

Zell is the prospective purchaser of the Tribune Corp. and thus a huge figure in newspaper circles these days. By all accounts, the real estate billionaire is a man of parts, comfortable on his motorcycle, passing a joint on the deck outside his office, in Dubai negotiating with Arab developers.

I'm pulling for his TRB deal to get done this year (there are doubts, many centered on whether cross-ownership rules allowing newspapers to own broadcast stations will be changed). Zell's competitive zeal and financial acumen seem like assets the news business can use, and there's a certain new-broom-sweeps-clean quality that's appealing, too. What's more, all the other options I know about seem distinctly less attractive.

That said, something about the swagger on display in this piece bothers me. He justifies greed by proclaiming his own worth ethic. ("I’ll put my work schedule against anybody you know, including you, and I work my ass off every day!" Oh yeah? I wonder how long he'd last on a Tyson chicken line?) He's similarly dismissive of ethical concerns.

But most troublesome, to me, is his apparent lack of any interest in a mission beyond profit in the news business.

Zell reads the Wall Street Journal, the New York Times, the Financial Times, and the Chicago Tribune each morning, and, occasionally, the L.A. Times. But there is little evidence that a regard for the public service that newspapers provide will affect his decisions about them. When I pressed him about the appeal of becoming a newspaper owner, he said, “You don’t know me, O.K.? I’m a major skier. I’ve had innumerable opportunities to buy ski areas. Each time, whatever it costs per day sounded cheap compared to having to deal with owning a ski area. I almost bought a motorcycle company, Ducati. In the end, fifteen thousand dollars seemed a lot better deal than a hundred million. So the answer is, I’ve been tested. The way I look at transactions, and the way I look at risk, I have no room for sentiment.”

Wait a minute, Sam: that's not sentiment you're talking about there. It's principle.

Nobody ought to spend $300 million on a whim. I'm not interested in owners motivated by sentiment. But newspaper companies really ought to be owned by people who care about their mission.


  1. Anonymous2:06 PM

    "But newspaper companies really ought to be owned by people who care about their mission."

    I couldn't agree with you more, Mr. Owens.

    But it begs the question: do most MNI shareholders really care about the company's mission of quality journalism, or just about quarterly earnings?

  2. It is our great good fortune that the McClatchy family, who own Class B shares controlling the company, are exactly the kind of owners I'm talking about: deeply committed to the public service journalism that is the heart of our mission. They have been for 150 years now.