If Sam Zell actually wants to buy the San Diego Union-Tribune—these bankrupts are big dreamers—he should read Peter Kaye’s excellent new memoir, Contrarian.
That’s assuming, of course, that Zell is actually interested in the cities in which he owns papers and television stations—an assumption that many of Sam’s critics would say is absolutely wrong. Sam the grave dancer doesn’t give a damn about where his media properties are buried.
Zell, owner of the Los Angeles Times and the rest of the Tribune Company, came to mind as I was reading Kaye’s book. I’d just come across a report in the Times that Zell is considering buying the Union-Tribune and the Orange County Register to consolidate the Southern California print and on line advertising market. Kaye was a longtime editor, columnist and political writer for the Union-Tribune, and his account of the once fat paper’s economic decline is a case study of how heirs can destroy a news empire.
This is just part of the book. Kaye has had a great and varied career. In addition to his time as a journalist, he was press secretary for a number of famous Republicans, including Richard Nixon, Gerald Ford, the late Houston Flournoy, and Pete Wilson. Journalistic ethicists may frown at this type of revolving door. But we Kaye friends know that he is so contrary—hence the title of the book—that he was pretty much impervious to influence by the politicians he worked for.
As a political writer, Kaye covered the legislature in the glory days of the ‘60s, when I met him, and presidential and gubernatorial campaigns. He became a Washington correspondent for public television and covered the Watergate hearings. His memoir is an interesting look at the early days of public television, before it became a cautious bureaucracy. In all, Kaye tells an enlightening story of the politics of the last century. The book deserves a place in collections of important California literature.
Personally, I was most interested in what Kaye had to say about his old paper, the Union-Tribune. Kaye returned to the paper after political campaigns and public television as a top- ranked editor. When he started years before, it was an awful paper, but it had improved over the years, but not greatly. The publisher was Helen Copley, the widow of James Copley, who had headed the Copley newspaper chain. She took over when he died. At her death, her son David Copley assumed command.
“Circulation was dropping, advertising revenues were off,” Kaye wrote. “We held meetings…our human relations department supplied a gaggle of gurus to guide us…an authority in diversity training said we should treat our employees more gently. A labor lawyer from Nashville told us how to smash the Newspaper Guild. One expert advised more features and lifestyle stories; another said we should emphasize hard news.”
Times are tough for newspapers and the Union-Tribune would have been hurt no matter how smart the owners. But except for rare periods, the paper was a mouthpiece for the conservative business interests, which ran San Diego, and for the most conservative elements of the Republican Party. San Diego was changing from that hidebound model, but the paper didn’t change with it.
After having to hire a lawyer to battle for retirement money owed him (“the company and I settled for 50 cents on the dollar which came to $100,000") Kaye retired in 1993, walking away from the remains of a once-prosperous enterprise. Hopefully, the process of keeping it alive will frighten away Zell and the survivors on the paper will be spared from seeing it reduced and dismantled by him.
The book is available on Amazon and www.booksurge.com