I listened to Sam Zell answer questions Thursday night at the Hammer Museum, then afterward shook his hand and chatted a bit about the Times and newspapers. First time I'd seen him in the flesh. I can see why some are enthused by his new role of media mogul. He's charismatic when analyzing business risk and the economy, and I liked that he enjoyed chatting freely afterward with young MBA students who were thrilled to pick the brain of a billionaire. (Zell had to be dragged away to a dinner date.) But if his opinions and assumptions carry the day, it's clear the Times will become a much different — and probably a lesser — news organization.
He's a newspaper reader of the old school, by the way — starts every day with the Wall Street Journal, New York Times, Financial Times and Chicago Tribune. Uh, Sam — L.A. Times? Only if he happens to be in Los Angeles. He rejected in one word — "no" — the LAT's aspirations to national stature, saying newspapers are essentially local beasts. He questioned the business rationale for any national paper now and predicted trouble ahead for the NYT. He also all but ridiculed foreign news as something "journalists like to cover," but that fails to engage readers. When he wants to know what's going on in the world, Zell said, he looks online. By that he means the Bloomberg terminal on his desk, because when asked which websites he reads Zell replied: "None."
No, he didn't address how he thinks foreign news reaches the Internet. He also reads six magazines a week and says together it makes him feel informed: "Somehow it all mixes up and...gets clarified in my head." More from my notebook on his plans for the Times ("newspapers have to rethink what their role is"), emotional connection to Los Angeles and his take on the presidential race:
- Asked by Judy Olian, dean of UCLA's Anderson School of Management, who he's voting for, Zell replied with an edge in his voice: "ABC — anybody but Clinton." Remember, he used a four-letter vulgarity for Hillary Clinton in Connie Bruck's New Yorker profile. Not that he's a John McCain fan. Asked by someone afterward if he sees a Republican he likes, Zell said: "No...not yet."
- He joked, in reply to a question from Olian, that if the Times endorsed Clinton it would be "good justification" for selling the paper. He reiterated later that, in fact, "I do not intend to influence the editorial page of this newspaper or any other newspaper."
- Zell repeated his "arrogance of journalists" line to dismiss an attendee's concerns about Times quality going down, so I guess we can officially call that a bug up his you know what. (Closest thing to Zellian profanity tonight was "testicles," in a joke about dentists.) He also said that if he sees opinion sneaking into stories he might have to remind his publishers that "veracity" is the key to readers finding the paper relevant. When I asked if he had the LAT in mind when he complained of out-of-place opinion, he said no — that he only had two months of experience with the paper.
- More generally, he declined my opening to say specifically in which direction the Times should reinvent itself: "Ask me in a year...we're still in the very early stages."
- There are many ways the Times could change, only some for the better. Zell clearly is not the kind of publisher who aspires to greatness and invests in hard, expensive kinds of journalism — risky investigative digging, complex issues that may take weeks or months to research, perhaps even coverage of poor people or less popular sports. It sounds as if the main criteria will be what brings in the most readers. We know what gets high ratings on the Times website — basketball and celebrity photos, with a smattering of hot stories of the moment. "It seems like an awful lot of journalism that's being written is not being read," he said. The two newspaper models he mentioned that interest him are the RedEye giveaway for young readers in Chicago and a teen-written weekly somewhere.
- Asked by Olian if there's also a community responsibility for a newspaper, he said there's only a responsibility to produce "clear, concise, honest news...with opinions limited to the editorial page" except where labeled.
- Asked if he has any emotional attachments to Los Angeles, Zell chose to reply that he grew up in Chicago, opts to live there, and will always call it home: "I am where my origins are from."
- He told an anecdote that his first business success, as a 12-year-old, was buying Playboy in Chicago for fifty cents, perusing it on the train home, then re-selling the magazine for three dollars to boys in the suburbs.
- He acknowledged an abundance of chutzpah: "I can't explain why. I just have enormous self-confidence."
- Every May or June, he goes off to ride his motorcycle for a week somewhere in the world. "That's the week I spend in my helmet, by myself."
- Asked if there are any films that inspired him, he said: "I don't go to the movies at all....I have a lot of trouble with the lack of realism in the movie business."
- He wore pressed blue jeans and a brown corduroy jacket.
Channel 5 covered the talk and ran a short piece on the 10 o'clock news. I can't find it on the website.
Later in the day: Zell on KCRW