What to Make of Zell’s Purchase of Tribune Co.?

For indispensable reporting on the coronavirus crisis, the election, and more, subscribe to the Mother Jones Daily newsletter.


The Tribune Company has announced that its holdings will be sold off to Chicago real estate tycoon Sam Zell. This is the latest—though hardly the last—chapter in the saga of the Tribune Co., whose attempts to use a “convergence media” model to create editorial “synergy” between its newspapers and TV stations perfectly illustrates the pitfalls of placing profits before reporting. As Eric Klinenberg writes in his article on the sad state of the American newspaper in our current issue, Tribune’s “cut and gut” approach has been a disaster, particularly for the once-proud Los Angeles Times, which has been bled dry since being picked up by Trib in 2000.

The company’s impending sale made some Angelenos hopeful that a white knight such as David Geffen would buy the paper and save the day. But for now, Zell’s the man to watch. He has no experience running a media company, which is a good or a bad thing, depending on whom you talk to. One Tribune Co. critic tells the LAT that “Sam Zell is a hands-off guy, so he will pick good people to run this paper and let them run it. The fact that he is a hands-off, strong player bodes well for journalistic integrity.” But as others have observed, Zell has a prickly relationship with the media, including his hometown Chicago Tribune. As Dean Starkman observes over at CJR Daily, Zell’s company, Equity Office Properties (EOP), was “famously thin-skinned” when it came to the press. And, he reminds readers, “as the going got tough, EOP resorted to a strategy that will sound familiar to newspaper employees: cost cutting.” As Klinenberg writes, once you start to see journalism as just another profit center rather than a public service, you start undermining the very product at the heart of your business. You can’t cut finanical corners without hurting editorial quality. We’ll soon see if Zell has learned that lesson by watching his new company’s past performance.

DOES IT FEEL LIKE POLITICS IS AT A BREAKING POINT?

Headshot of Editor in Chief of Mother Jones, Clara Jeffery

It sure feels that way to me, and here at Mother Jones, we’ve been thinking a lot about what journalism needs to do differently, and how we can have the biggest impact.

We kept coming back to one word: corruption. Democracy and the rule of law being undermined by those with wealth and power for their own gain. So we're launching an ambitious Mother Jones Corruption Project to do deep, time-intensive reporting on systemic corruption, and asking the MoJo community to help crowdfund it.

We aim to hire, build a team, and give them the time and space needed to understand how we got here and how we might get out. We want to dig into the forces and decisions that have allowed massive conflicts of interest, influence peddling, and win-at-all-costs politics to flourish.

It's unlike anything we've done, and we have seed funding to get started, but we're looking to raise $500,000 from readers by July when we'll be making key budgeting decisions—and the more resources we have by then, the deeper we can dig. If our plan sounds good to you, please help kickstart it with a tax-deductible donation today.

Thanks for reading—whether or not you can pitch in today, or ever, I'm glad you're with us.

Signed by Clara Jeffery

Clara Jeffery, Editor-in-Chief

payment methods

We Recommend

Latest