Zell Defends Cutbacks in Conference Call With His Reporters

By: Joe Strupp

Tribune Co. Chief Sam Zell used his own reporters Tuesday to spread his assurances that ongoing cutbacks at Tribune papers would not ruin the chain and defended the severe changes as necessary.

In a conference call with Tribune reporters, Zell defended “the staffing and page cuts under way ? as necessary in the worst advertising climate in decades,” The Sun of Baltimore reported, adding that “Zell said reducing staff by as much as 25 percent in some newsrooms and shrinking and redesigning the company’s newspapers were the only options to ensure short-term survival and to allow a longer-term reinvention of the American newspaper.

“We’re looking at some of the worst advertising numbers in the history of the world,” The Sun quoted him as saying. “I have a responsibility … to keep this business alive when cash flow has eroded at a prodigious level.” He also noted: “We went through every one of our organizations with a goal of getting efficient numbers up and head counts down so we can survive to live another day.”

Zell’s comments follow recent major cutbacks at numerous Tribune dailies, including more than 250 jobs being slashed at the Los Angeles Times and dozens more at the Chicago Tribune. The Times also saw the departure of publisher David Hiller, while Tribune Editor Ann Marie Lipinski stepped down last week after seven years at the helm.

Just this past week, the Orlando Sentinel and South Florida Sun-Sentinel of Fort Lauderdale both revealed they were cutting 20% of newsroom jobs by the end of July.

“It is very clear … the role of the newspaper is changing and we need to size our organization and our newspaper to reflect the realities of the marketplace,” Zell added in the conference call, the Sun reported.

Zell also “stopped short of saying that no additional reductions would be needed,” the paper reported.

“We’re not interested in trial by torture, not interested in dying by a thousand cuts,” he said. “We’re doing everything we can to make this downsizing happen as quickly and as painlessly as possible.”

The Sun added: “Zell originally said he planned to keep all of the company’s media properties, but changed plans when revenues fell far faster than expected in the worsening economy….

“Tribune announced last month the $650 million sale of suburban New York newspaper Newsday to Cablevision Systems Corp. and is selling the Chicago Cubs baseball team and the team’s ballpark, Wrigley Field,” the Sun noted. “Zell said the Newsday deal could close as early as next week.”

Asked during the call if other Tribune properties might be sold, Zell said: “Are there further asset sales? I can’t answer that question in specificity. The Cubs are on the agenda and beyond that we don’t have anything definitive.”

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