Sam Zell and the Re-Engineering of Newspaper Culture

I was reading this weekend in the Globe & Mail a long article about billionaire Sam Zell and his purchase and subsequent re-engineering of the Tribune Company, one of the large US newspaper groups. The article as a whole is very informative but I was especially intrigued by this excerpt:

Since taking over, Mr. Zell has attempted to raze the culture by replenishing the senior management team with trusted lieutenants and giving his properties more autonomy: Local papers will decide what they do in a particular market and they will also be responsible for creating and meeting their own budgets. Most importantly, though, in some people’s minds, he’s showed up. “I’d say when he came to visit our shop, what a lot of my managers came away with was we didn’t often get visits from executives before. And when they did, they couldn’t pronounce the names of the local cities,” said Digby Solomon, publisher of the Daily Press in Newport News, Va. “It’s not as though the people who have been running newspaper companies are stupid, but I think in any sort of business, you get trapped in a particular way of thinking, and it’s just very difficult to shake loose from that.”

Sam Zell

Flickr picture by William Couch.

The Daily Press fits the mould of what Mr. Zell has described as his “petri dish” model – using smaller papers as testing grounds, or incubators, for new ideas that could be rolled out to the chain’s larger papers. The paper has already taken one gamble, replacing its front page with virtually all local news, rather than the conventional format of national news being afforded the prime placement. It may not sound like much, but this is the kind of change that gives newsrooms pause: There were serious concerns about people cancelling their subscriptions. In the end, none did. “Everyone was afraid to test it,” Mr. Solomon conceded. “But this isn’t a heart transplant – if we screw it up, we can change it tomorrow.”

What it means: very interesting to look at the various strategic imperatives Zell is implementing inside Tribune Company. He’s obviously starting with a clean slate (and a now private Tribune Company) which gives him more freedom but the idea of having decentralized decisions centers, the whole local/hyperlocal angle, and the creation of a culture that rewards risk-taking are all steps in the right direction. Using smaller newspapers as a testing ground is also smart if you can iterate and migrate successes quickly to larger newspapers.

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