Who is the better tyrant... er, boss? Portfolio's Jack Flack looks at Murdoch's purchase of Dow Jones and Zell's commandeering of Tribune and winds up siding with Murdoch, lovingly nicknamed "Rotten Old Bastard." "On the surface," he writes, "there are many similarities. Both are considered business rogues. Both embrace public conflict, conjuring an irrational fear in their opponents. And both provoke extensive teeth-sucking among journalism's high priests." But there also are key differences, such as Murdoch buying something of unique value – business news, as a business, has an edge over general news (affluent readership, being able to expense subscriptions). Zell, on the other hand, is buying assets that while having obvious value, are not unique, especially in an Internet age. Another big difference: Murdoch willingly takes risks in buying assets; Zell, who isn't called the "Grave Dancer" for nothing, only buys assets when he can avoid risks (and with Tribune, he’s only just begun).
Except for his earliest acquisitions, Murdoch typically buys from a position of financial strength, and constructs the deals to give him maximum flexibility after the purchase. Zell's orientation as a scavenger of distressed properties causes him to take a purely buy-low-sell-high transactional view of every deal. For all of his perceived boldness, one of Zell's big strengths is actually the conservatism he shows by using other people's money—or, as he has done with Tribune Co., even someone else's Employee Stock Ownership Plan—to do his deals. That lowers his up-front risk significantly, but it also usually straps the new property into a skin-tight economic model, with little room for either creativity or unexpected headwinds.
Another key difference, as the LAT folks are discovering with each "Partners" memo from Sam, is Zell demanding to be the center of attention. "Zell indulges his own personality at the expense of his business, while Murdoch frequently parks his personality to get what he wants," Flack writes.