Sam Was Here

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This is Kevin Roderick with LA Observed on KCRW.

I finally got to meet LA's newest media mogul last night. Face to face. We even shook hands.

Sam Zell -- the Chicago billionaire who likes to call himself the Grave Dancer -- spoke to a couple of hundred people at the Hammer Museum in Westwood.

Rain and the resulting traffic collapse across the Westside kept down the crowd. But those who did come wanted to know Zell's plans for his big, battered new toy, the Los Angeles Times.

And I have to say, the indications for journalism in Los Angeles are not so good.

Now, I know people -- even at the Times -- who think Zell is a fresh breeze blowing through a stale barn full of crusty, dusty news dinosaurs. And there is something to that.

But after devouring everything Zell has said about the news business recently -- and asking him a few questions of my own after last night's appearance -- I don't see why anybody who cares about being informed would line up to drink the Zell Kool-aid.

He has some big-picture gut instincts that he offers as insight but are just homilies. Newspapers have to make money, or else the journalism can't continue. Readers have been turned off, and need to be turned back on. Being smart on the web is key.

He gets no argument from me on those points. But that's about as far as Zell goes, except for some troubling baggage about the value of news and the people who gather it.

Like a lot of self-made rich guys who have been written about, he doesn't seem to like journalists as a class. Not surprising. Many people don't.

But his antipathy has become a key reference point, an emotional sidetrack in an otherwise cold, logical risk and reward analysis of the news business.

Whenever he is asked about maintaining depth or quality, you can almost see his hackles swelling. He turns it to a rant against what he calls -- the arrogance of journalists.

He did it again last night, essentially dismissing foreign news as something – imagine the sneer in his voice – that journalists like to do. Consumers of news don't care, he says.

Not about that -- or about a lot of stories that reporters and editors think are important.

This quality question is the fuse that, a couple of weeks back at his newspaper in Florida, led Zell to explode an f-bomb at the back of a journalist who dared to inquire about the new boss's standards.

She did Zell no offense, according to her editor and her publisher. And Sam ultimately apologized -- for that and for using crude slang for female genitalia during a meeting at the Times.

He lost goodwill with those two outbursts, and some credibility when he claimed the salty language was deliberate. Calculated to shake up the Tribune Company's lethargy, he said.

There was no profanity last night. No eruptions that made news other than a declaration that his preference for president is A B C – Anybody But Clinton.

Zell did press his case that the Times has to give readers what they want. OK, but what is that?

The Times has grown into the fourth most-read paper in the country by staffing up with experienced -- here's that word again – journalists. The paper has bureaus around the world and the country, and does more ambitious investigating than anybody locally.

All the American papers that do less and who try to fool the customer with young, cheap reporters – every one of them -- sells fewer copies than the LA Times.

Seems there would be a lesson in there for a smart business guy like Zell. If you just want clicks on your website, celebrity photos will do that. But a strong, respected brand -- that's much harder to build.

There's more from Zell's remarks last night at LA Observed dot com.

For KCRW this has been Kevin Roderick with LA Observed.

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