By paulgillin | June 16, 2008 - 7:43 am - Posted in Business News, BusinessModel, Journalism, Layoffs, NewMedia, Newspapers

Sam ZellYou have to wonder if Chicago Tribune owner Sam Zell wishes he had stayed in the predictable world of real estate, where market collapses are at least cyclical. As a novice publishing CEO presiding over a market shift of historic proportions, he looks increasingly helpless even as he becomes more belligerent. Among the recent stories:

Tribune Publisher Quits

The Chicago Tribune is losing its publisher. Scott Smith exits after 30 years at the paper, saying he’s done as much as he can do within the confines of a set of goals that he no longer owns. One suspects that the cost cuts recently outlined by his new bosses were probably a factor, although Smith tells the Tribune that isn’t so. Smith is diplomatic in his exit interview while his Tribune Co. COO damns with faint praise, describing Smith as having been “helpful as we implement our plans for the future.” (via Romenesko)

Public Rebuke for LA Times Publisher

LA Observed posts a memo by LA Times editor Russ Stanton outlining plans to shut down the monthly Los Angeles Times Magazine. What’s interesting is that the memo comes from Stanton and non Stanton’s boss, publisher David Hiller. The two were in the spotlight last week when The New York Times reported that Hiller planned to pull the rug out from under his own editor by re-launching the magazine as a kind of advertorial without telling the readers or even the editors.

Given the publicity this stunt must have generated within the organization (Stanton begins, not-too-subtly, “By now you’ve likely heard that the company is rethinking the future of the Los Angeles Times Magazine…”) the memo amounts to a public flogging of Hiller. A decision to shut down a business is always the publisher’s duty to announce, not the editor’s. It’s safe to assume that powers-that-be at Tribune Co. interceded and directed Stanton to issue the memo as a sign that he was in control of the editorial department. You have to wonder about Hiller’s future after an embarrassment like this, particularly in light of the unflattering things that other former editors have said recently about the current administration. (via Edward Padgett).

Redesign: A Useless Exercise at the Wrong Time

A new blog called Tell Zell is documenting and commenting upon the misadventures of the newspaper industry’s most unlikely tycoon. In the old days, disgruntled employees organized unions. Today, they blog.

Anyway, the site is previewing a new design for the Orlando Sentinel that apparently presages an overhaul of many of the Tribune Co.’s properties. The new look is more weblike, with lots of entry points, an assortment of headline weights and red and black (power colors) everywhere. Alan Mutter hates it and harkens back to an earlier employer’s desperate attempts to save itself through a radical redesign in the late 1970s.

I think it makes no difference either way. Redesigns are a publisher’s classic lipstick-on-a-pig solution to much deeper problems. No publication was ever made or broken by the quality of its design. While design can get attention (remember Wired’s so-hip-we’re-unreadable look of the mid-90s?), the stuff that keeps readers coming back is words and images on a page. People read The Economist, despite its dull design, because they find the content so valuable.

I learned this first-hand presiding over the editorial department of a technology newspaper that was being buffeted by competition and the Internet in the late 90s. We came up with a hip, arresting design that got good reviews from readers but ultimately made no difference in the market. If Zell’s team starts percolating redesigns as solutions for structural problems, they’re wasting money.

And Finally…

Give Zell credit: he brings out the muse in writers. Variety’s Brian Lowry is the latest to skewer the Tribune Co. owner. Invoking Zell’s famous statement to LA Times employees about being the Viagra for the business, Lowry concludes: “[I]t would have been nice [if Zell had] come into the job with a better plan, but it’s too late for that. At a minimum, then, a touch of humanity and humility is warranted, given that despite all the big talk, the new boss looks just as flaccid as the old ones.”

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