The more I read of Sam Zell as he takes his dog-and-pony show throughout Tribune Co. newspapers, the more I’m beginning to like him. This guy may not understand newspapers and journalism, but he sure gets the idea the business model needs to change if it is to be relevant to customers and thrive.
Zell doesn’t know the glory days of journalism; he probably has never watched “All the President’s Men” or “Deadline U.S.A.” so he doesn’t understand the rich history and romance of our trade. But, frankly, that’s an advantage. He’s basically the clean slate the Trib needs to plot its future.
Now, if the writers and editors can quit fixating on his use words describing female genitalia or the act or procreation, and focus more on his message, there may be hope for us yet. But to get the message, it’ll mean letting go of things we held true for the past century. It’ll mean interaction, not dictation. It’ll mean looking at what readers want, rather than what we think they want. It’ll mean linking revenue performance to editorial goals (this will hurt the most, but I believe this can be done without necessarily sacrificing journalistic excellence or ethics). In many cases, it will mean re-evaluating the core processes that have been the bread and butter of many newspapers, and eliminating inefficiencies.
I think Zell realizes this. I wish more newspapers execs … including the ones at the paper I work at … did so. The industry needs more Sam Zells to stir the pot and kick some chairs. Those who stir the pot now will be more likely to find the answer and survive and thrive. Those who wait for others to find the answer, I fear, will not.