Wednesday, October 06, 2010

The Sam Zell Culture

This article has been bothering me all day. It's the story of how Sam Zell tried to change the culture at the Tribune Company, parent company of the Chicago Tribune, Los Angeles Times, and other newspapers, after he bought it.

Apparently he felt that installing a juvenile and sexist bunch of executives would solve the daunting problems that newspapers are facing. It's hard not to wonder what he was thinking.

Perhaps it was something like this: just unleash those red-blooded men, and they'll fix all that stuff. To which one has to wonder what he expected they'd do, beyond trying to bribe waitresses to show their boobs.

The Times article has a photo of the executives, all men of a certain age, which Mr. Zell exceeds. They live in a world that is gone forever.
“Here was this guy, who was responsible for all these people, getting drunk in front of senior people and saying this to a waitress who many of us knew,” said one of the Tribune executives present, who declined to be identified because he had left the company and did not want to be quoted criticizing a former employer. “I have never seen anything like it.”
This executive must be younger if he has never seen anything like it.

I'm just back from one of my periodic forays into the college world. I love it that the students are showing so many characteristics that some of us dreamed of when I was in college. In particular, they expect that people will be treated equally and don't understand why gender and skin color and speaking with an accent might be a basis for anything else.

Sam Zell and his executives are of a generation in which gender and skin color and speaking with an accent are markers for derision and a way to cause explosive laughter in one's peers (white males, of course), particularly while drinking or developing pranks to undermine those carrying the unfortunate markers. So there must have been horror and disbelief when the employee handbook told them that, hey, they just needed to be able to take a joke!
“Working at Tribune means accepting that you might hear a word that you, personally, might not use,” the new handbook warned. “You might experience an attitude you don’t share. You might hear a joke that you don’t consider funny. That is because a loose, fun, nonlinear atmosphere is important to the creative process.” It then added, “This should be understood, should not be a surprise and not considered harassment.”
Of course, there is an implied division between the "you" who doesn't consider the joke funny and those who revel in a "loose, fun [that word again], nonlinear atmosphere." And the implication is that "your" point of view doesn't count. Obvious now, not so much to the Mad Men.

What puzzles me, though, is how anyone thought that this sort of behavior, which might be called juvenile except that our current-day juveniles probably wouldn't find it all that much fun past middle school, would improve things. Or what the plan was to deal with the real problems that newspapers face. An open atmosphere for the old white guys would boost their creativity and they'd find the answers? After their track record of bringing newspapers to where they are today?
“Anybody can make money when you are not servicing the debt and cutting people. Zell and the people he brought in had no idea what they were doing.”
Well, yeah. Sounds like some of the bright ideas that our financial wizards had that brought down the economy, although less sophisticated.

So was it a rich guy and his friends just having a little fun, fiddling while Rome burned, or did Zell and his crew really believe this was going to improve things?

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Well remember he bought the place with debt financed by the newspapers (including the workers pension funds) so his actual investment in the business was extremely small--just like everyone thought Bush owned the Texas Rangers when actually he had a 2% stake (which he borrowed money to buy).