Sam certainly has a talker on his hands. His unexpected plans to increase productivity in Tribune newsrooms - especially the LAT - and tighten up news holes have generated the predictable outcries among the ink-stained set. Former SF Chronicle editor Alan Mutter says that Zell "has failed to articulate, let alone implement, anything approaching a strategy for growing the company he loaded with debt at the time its primary business, newspaper publishing, has been deteriorating at an unprecedented, incalculable and so far intractable pace." I guess that's a no. But Mark Potts, a longtime business reporter and current newspaper consultant, is willing to cut Sam a little slack. He recalls the fabled story of a productivity expert walking into the Washington Post newsroom and concluding that "you've got to stop these people from sitting around their desks reading newspapers."
Now let's be clear: Sam Zell is hardly the guy I would choose to turn around the newspaper business. Nor is his chief lieutenant Randy Michaels, who has talked way too much about an industry he knows next to nothing about (whatever happened to a new guy keeping his mouth shut until he has some idea of how the business is run?). Also keep in mind that these grand pronouncements about change come at a time when Tribune is struggling just to cover its debt obligations. That's like trying to balance your checkbook while the bill collector is knocking at the door. All that said, I'm tilting towards Potts on this one.
The dirty little secret of big-paper newsrooms is that, well, they aren't all that productive. That's what gave a little edge to that alleged anecdote about the Post's productivity–there usually were a lot of reporters and editors just sort of sitting around, reading papers. Every big newsroom has its share–more than its share–of reporters who write only occasionally, of editors who spend an unfortunate amount of time sitting and waiting for the next piece of copy to come in.
So maybe Zell is onto something, and maybe his big, tough talk will put the fear of god into slackers in the newsrooms in Chicago, Los Angeles, Baltimore and other Tribune properties (the L.A. TImes newsroom is legendarily bloated). Sorry, but in this day and age, everybody in the newsroom has to work smarter, better and more efficiently. Deal with it.
This is hardly the prevailing view, as you might expect. Here's more from Mutter:
Far from leading and inspiring the employees he maneuvered into a co-ownership plan they neither wanted, approved nor can control, Mr. Zell has spent the last six months haranguing, insulting and terrifying the very people whose support he needs to salvage this troubled deal. The absence of an effective strategy at Tribune became manifest last week when Mr. Zell announced that, for want of better ideas, he intends to make sweeping cuts in staffing, pages and news coverage that are bound to further erode the already-tottering franchises of some of the most esteemed newspapers in the country.