Sunday, December 23, 2007

You own Tribune now

You and Sam Zell.

"I've always said that what this company needs is an owner," Zell said Thursday. But Zell, the self-proclaimed "new sheriff in town", the CEO that refers to himself as the new owner, didn't have to answer even one question about the ESOP at his news conference in Tribune Tower Thursday. "Zell should be mighty grateful that no journalist brought up the inconvenient truth that this ESOP is structured [in such a way] that employees will have almost no "ownership" voice for a long, long time", wrote E&P in a commentary "Why Sam Zell Avoids the 'Big Lies' of New Owners" posted late Friday night.

The ESOP worries a whole lot of folks. In place of company contributions to a 401(k), employees now have equity in a company saddled with $13 billion in debt. But Zell dismisses nay-sayers and pessimists. "The bottom line is that this company has significant cash flow cushion going forward," Zell said. "We do not expect that we will have any problems servicing our debt in the near future." From LAT

Over the next 10 years, he said, if all Tribune accomplishes is to pay off its loans, he and the employees would be free-and-clear owners of an enterprise worth billions of dollars.
Indeed, hopes are higher these days. Zell brings promise of a "brand new day" given his long history of business brilliance and strategic successes. "If you look at my track record, I haven't spent much time disassembling anything," Zell said in an interview Wednesday, "and I've spent my entire career building things."

Despite fears that he will make big cuts, Zell said Friday that Tribune will likely add to its 20,000+ employee staff in the next year. In a videotaped interview with CT and LAT reporters that was later posted on the company's Web site, Zell said "I think we'll have more employees a year from now than we do today. I'll also tell you that it's unlikely that all the deck chairs will be in the same place."

Folks are cautiously optimistic. Bill Salagnick, president of the Washington-Baltimore Newspaper Guild, which represents most employees at the Baltimore Sun, said the union has had no indication of whether there will be further cuts in staff. "I think Tribune has gone through a hard few years and some fresh approaches and fresh ideas could help us," said Salganik, a Sun business reporter. "But as a general proposition, we think that you need to have enough people here to put an attractive product in the hands of readers."

Zell promises plenty of change but announced nothing specific. Plans are to de-centralize the company that has been top-down directed, give the individual properties greater local control and hold those in charge "accountable". (An unedited video of Zell's announcement Thursday is here at

Zell set up a "Talk to Sam" link on the Tribune site. Too bad it's just for employees because we sure would like to ask him a couple of questions about the ESOP and how the other new owners can participate in the decision-making and future direction of the company. But maybe in the next few months, you'll ask him how you can exercise your new ownership voice on "Talk to Sam".

In the meantime, we'll be here.

Tribune photo by Charles Osgood

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