Moguls with Missions

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For KCRW, I'm Nick Madigan of The Baltimore Sun with Minding the Media.

To many people, it doesn't much matter who owns the newspaper they're reading or the TV network they're watching.

So yesterday's announcement that the parent company of the Los Angeles Times and KTLA-TV was being sold to a real-estate tycoon with no grounding in journalism was probably irrelevant to anyone who's not in the business.

But the deal is another sign that, these days, what matters is profit, and profit only, regardless of the noble intentions of dedicated reporters and editors. Ultimately, that makes a difference to what you're reading and watching. It's already obvious on TV, where cheaply made reality and game shows and contests form the bulk of prime-time fare.

In newspapers, fewer reporters, smaller pages and shrinking budgets mean that you, dear reader, have less to read. If you care.

In today's L.A. Times, James Rainey and Tom Mulligan wrote that Sam Zell's plan to buy the Tribune Company would "put one of the nation's largest public media companies into the hands of a maverick investor with little experience in the business but a belief that there's still money to be made in newspapers and television."

The $8.2-billion deal would give Zell virtual control not only of the L.A. Times and the Chicago Tribune but of cable's Superstation WGN, the Baltimore Sun, the Orlando Sentinel, a handful of other newspapers and more than 20 other TV stations.

"In Los Angeles, many civic activists expressed disappointment that a local buyer had not prevailed to take control of The Times and KTLA," Rainey and Mulligan wrote.

The L.A. Times's "marriage with Tribune has been a troubled one," they went on.

"Over a recent two-year period, the paper lost two publishers and two editors, largely because of their complaints that the parent company was cutting the editorial staff excessively. At its peak, the paper employed about 1,200 journalists. Its staff has dropped to about 940... About 50 more newsroom employees are expected to lose their jobs in upcoming reductions."

So the Times will continue to be run from Chicago, although two L.A. investors, Ron Burkle and Eli Broad, did make a last-ditch effort to buy the company for themselves.

And David Geffen yesterday reaffirmed his interest in acquiring the L.A. Times, according to Sharon Waxman and Laura Holson in today's New York Times.

Ever since Tribune bought the Times Mirror Company in 2000, and, with it, the L.A. Times, "there has been a culture clash between the Chicago-based owners at Tribune and its marquee California newspaper."

Holson and Waxman wrote that the tension "has been particularly pronounced throughout the deal-making process," which pitted Zell, who lives in Chicago, against the West coast's Burkle and Broad.

L.A. Times columnist Steve Lopez was disappointed that the "local boys" had been beaten. He wrote that Zell had "at least one thing in common" with Broad and Geffen: "They all have beach houses in Malibu."

In today's Chicago Tribune, Michael Oneal wrote that the deal "will place a motorcycle riding, epithet- slinging multibillionaire" atop one of the "most conservative, buttoned-down companies in America."

In normal times, Zell's takeover of a media company would be odd, Oneal wrote.

"But these aren't normal times. The Tribune saga provides the most dramatic evidence yet that the newspaper industry is caught in a set of crosscurrents that are likely to change the way news and information are delivered."

Jeff Jarvis, who teaches interactive journalism at City University of New York and was an editor at The Chicago Tribune, said newspapers "will have to go through titanic and wrenching change to make it to the other side."

"It's sad but telling that the only bidders for Tribune are moguls with missions," Jarvis said. "The fact that newspaper and media companies don't want to buy these properties is all too telling: They know better."

This is Nick Madigan of The Baltimore Sun, Minding the Media on KCRW.



Nick Madigan