L.A.'s New Zellionaire

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This is Kevin Roderick with LA Observed for KCRW.

The Los Angeles media scene got an early Christmas present last week in the form of an unconventional –- and potentially entertaining – new personality.

By the looks of it, we're in for a wild ride.

Sam Zell is a Chicago deal-maker who just closed on an $8.2 billion take-over of the Tribune Company, the biggest media conglomerate in the Midwest.

This means he now owns the Los Angeles Times and KTLA Channel 5, as well as newspapers and TV stations around the country.

Zell didn't use much of his own fortune to acquire his new toys –- he mostly leveraged the stock holdings of Tribune employees. It's a risky transaction that made the bankers nervous right up until the deal closed.

The bankers were ultimately satisfied. Now it's me who's nervous. And anyone who cares about the integrity of news should be.

Zell is not anything like the stuffy suits who have lorded over the Times since Tribune swooped in to buy the newspaper seven years ago.

At his coming out press conference, he wore jeans and an open shirt. He cusses in meetings and gets in the face of people who ask him questions.

He dismisses pessimists who see newspapers as dying. "They ain't ended," he said last week. "And they're not going to end."

No one would probably care about Sam Zell's opinion of the news business -- except that he now is the most powerful news media mogul in Los Angeles.

What he thinks matters now, and there are lots of people trying to predict what he may do with his new position of influence.

Especially where it regards the L.A. Times, a newspaper that lost subscribers by the tens of thousands, staffers by the hundreds and an unquantifiable amount of respect during the Tribune reign.

Local business leaders are cautiously optimistic about Zell.

They pushed local billionaire Eli Broad to buy the paper – and might have settled for Malibu mogul David Geffen. But they're willing to give Zell a chance.

In the Times newsroom, the journalists too are viewing their new Zellionaire as a potential savior.

That's less because of anything they know about him -- and more because Tribune's ownership was seen, in the words of columnist Tim Rutten, as "a disastrous journalistic experiment."

Tribune did fail miserably in Los Angeles, but whether Zell is any better depends in large part on how well he resists the rich guy's impulse to meddle.

He has said, dozens of times, that he has no intention of involving himself in the Times news coverage. But on the day he took over, he qualified that message a bit.

Meddling won't occur, he said, "as long as the editorial policies are relevant and truthful." He won't stand for "my newspapers publishing stuff that isn't true or is, in effect, an editorial on the front page."

If it was blatant, he went on, "I would be very upset."

Those are laudable standards to shoot for, but I can't help thinking about George Steinbrenner tinkering with the Yankees, or wacky Wendy McCaw ruining the paper in Santa Barbara.

The trouble with cocky, headstrong CEO's is that they tend to overvalue their own take on things. The smartest, most successful media moguls have learned not to call the city desk with every little nit where they disagree with an editorial decision.

The test will come when Zell starts getting calls from friends and fellow CEO's who want to use their influence with good ol' Sam to block the Times from publishing some story.

To truly enjoy his time as de facto publisher, Zell should embrace what Otis Chandler and countless other publishers learned. The fun in owning a newspaper is NOT in being able to change a headline. It in being able to tell the powerful to blow it out their ear.

For KCRW I'm Kevin Roderick and this has been LA Observed.