Bill Boyarsky
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March 27, 2008

Sam, the viagra man

How much more can be dished out to the beleaguered journalists of the Los Angeles Times?

A Pulitzer Prize winning reporter, Chuck Phillips, and his editor, Marc Duvoisin, have to apologize for a story based on what appears to have been phony documents. Then, there are the musings and rantings of the owner, Sam Zell, who, according to Variety, said of the newspaper:

"The challenge is, how do we get somebody 126 years old to get it up. Well, I'm your Viagra."

Even though I left the place several years ago, I still hang out with its reporters and editors occasionally.

I think they're incredibly dedicated not only for slogging along but for doing some fine work for a paper that once seemed indestructible but now looks like a house of cards. They are trying to do good journalism while facing murky futures. Those that are staying are experiencing the trauma of good friends and colleagues leaving on buyouts at the end of the month.

Of all their trials, none is worse than the reign of the Viagra Man. He fires off e-mails to the staff demanding new ideas, trying to give the impression that the scattered and disparate employees are a single team, and he is their fiery, inspirational coach.

I don't know about Sam, but the Times doesn't need Viagra. It needs journalists who can go to work each day without worrying about looking for a new job or whether they'll wind up with any money in the Employee Stock Ownership Program that Zell used to buy Tribune Co.

I still don't understand the deal, or what will happen to the employees' retirement benefits if the company defaults on its debt payments and goes into bankruptcy. It looks as though the workers are taking all the risks while Sam is assured of walking away rich as ever.

Instead of silly pep talks, Sam ought to fire off some e-mails providing transparency on the ESOP deal.

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