Sam Zell is the New Sheriff at the Tribune Co–can a non-media type save mainstream?

December 24, 2007

Sam Zell, a real estate gazillionaire has taken over one of the premiere mainstream media enterprises in the nation–the Tribune Company. Of course, he got a steal because of the crisis facing most traditional media in the light of the massive switch to the internet as the primary news source.

I find his approach refreshing and optimistic–he says all the focus has been on cost cutting and now the emphasis needs to be on revenue enhancement. In our own small market, the daily has changed hands three times in the past few years and the new publisher clearly has an entrepreneurial bent starting at least three glossy magazines serving the local community. I’m not certain but I’m presuming ad revenue is likely up–particularly since one company bought up all the local radio stations and with huge rate increases across the board made radio a less attractive advertising option locally.

What will be interesting to watch is how Zell approaches the challenge of enhancing revenue and paying off a $13 b debt. I’m guessing it will be combinations of leveraging off existing brands in traditional media and some innovative ideas in new media. I’m just hoping–and here is the tenuous connection to crisis management–that he steers away from the way the main stream media has fought the current battle and that is turning more and more to infotainment strategies in covering the news. Infotainment is bad news for those concerned about reputations because the slightest issue–real, imagined, or accused, becomes fodder for building ratings with screaming headlines and simplistic reporting. We’ve seen far too much of that in the past few years. Publishers and producers should take note–extreme infotainment has not stopped the slide. Zell–it’s time for something else and I hope you find another way.

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