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Wednesday, Sep 27, 2023

Bells Toll for Reporters But What About Zell?

After having been fired from a reporting job some years back I called my former college advisor for advice on what to do next. Bob Reid was part teacher, mentor, and father confessor; a chain-smoking, literate physician giving verbal injections that journalism was a noble calling. Whether in person in his small office in the basement of Greg Hall on the University of Illinois campus, or by phone (during which you could hear him taking puffs from a cigarette), a talk with Bob Reid left you inspired. During that 1996 conversation, he advised not to get discouraged or cynical. However, he warned, the corporate mentality I went up against at that job would be present wherever I went. “Every generation has their demon to conquer and yours is the corporation,” Reid said. “Mine was the fat cat millionaires and persuading them what should be done with their printing presses.” Bob Reid died in December 2004 before he could witness the collapse of the newspaper business; to read about major American newspapers cutting editorial staffs, watch their circulation drop, and lose readership to online news sources. That quote comes to mind as the Los Angeles Times finishes up another round of layoff and buyouts that eliminated 135 newsroom positions. By my count that is the fourth time since June 2004 the Times has made such cuts so it’s clear that the corporation is conquering the journalists rather than the other way around. Along with employees, the Times did away with 14 percent of its news pages, including the Sunday opinion and book review section Industry-wide cuts Elsewhere in Southern California and across the country, the story is the same. The Business Journal has detailed the staffing cuts at the Daily News; in June the Ventura County Star took the path of other publications by eliminating its standalone business section, and consolidated some feature sections; the A.H. Belo Corp. and the McClatchy Co. cut positions at their respective newspapers. Besides the Times, other Tribune Co. papers lost staffers as well. In January, when the Chicago Sun-Times aimed its axe at the newsroom I kept in daily contact with two friends to find out if anyone we knew was among the victims. Fortunately none were although a former co-worker did take a buyout from the paper. In June, I learned that a long-time friend took a buyout from Gatehouse Media’s weekly papers in suburban Chicago after 12 years of service. GateHouse is a publicly traded company with newspapers primarily in the Midwest and Northeast and as of July 29 its stock traded at $0.72 per share. I’ve worked with reporters who got out of the newspaper business for various reasons but now when they do it’s done with more urgency. Yes, there were times when I declared I would leave journalism to go over to the “dark side” of public relations or do something completely different. But I was never serious. Those were statements borne of frustration of covering yet another fourth-grade science fair, another late evening spent at a dull city council meeting for which I received no overtime pay, or dealing with an unreasonable editor. For years one of my best friends, who I met in a journalism class nearly 19 years ago, said he was getting out of the business. Then last fall Steve finally did so, leaving the Daily Herald, the third largest daily in Chicago, to go to the American Library Association, although he continues to put in time as the Sunday reporter. Just as the Tribune and Sun-Times faces financial challenges, so does the family-owned Herald. In the past year alone came across-the-board salary cuts followed by two rounds of layoffs. The morning I finished this column, I talked with Steve and amidst the conversation about the Chino Hills earthquake and the playoff possibilities of the Cubs and White Sox, he mentioned that two more people, one an editor, had left the Herald. That same morning I read at LAObserved ( www.laobserved.com ) that Tom Johnson had resigned as general manager of Times Community Newspapers, the L.A. Times-owned chain where I once toiled at the Burbank Leader. By leaving, Johnson said in a statement included at the website, he accepted that “I wasn’t in agreement with the direction the company was headed.” Pellmell With Zell In the face of all that bad news perhaps even my former college professor would find difficulty remaining optimistic about the state of the newspaper business. His attitude perhaps would stay the same about the demons out there to slay, except in these times it is both the corporations and the fat cat millionaires. Make that the fat cat billionaire when it comes to the L.A. Times. The flash point for anger at the state of the Times centers on Sam Zell, the foul-mouthed, white-bearded real estate mogul who bought Tribune Co. and put it into private hands (his and the employees). He’s inspired a website ( www.tellzell.com ), a spoof website of the Times ( www.notthelatimes.com ), the hanging of a banner from the Times parking garage (“Zell Hell” in dramatic black and red letters) and a full page ad in the Studio City Sun by Valley resident Jack McGrath urging Zell to sell the paper. The ad-generated phone calls and e-mails from Times subscribers upset over the direction of the paper, a sentiment that McGrath looks to harness in coming weeks with a rally outside the paper’s building on Spring Street. The Valley public relations man couldn’t stand by to watch the disintegration of what he considers a national newspaper by a man Zell with no newspaper experience and who only cares about the bottom line. “There is a very, very large backlash against him and what he is doing to the newspaper in the L.A. media market,” McGrath said. The actions of McGrath and others may not be what Bob Reid had in mind but contains the same spirit of conquering the corporate billionaire fat cats. The bell has tolled for hundreds of working reporters. Does it toll for Zell? Staff Reporter Mark Madler can be reached at (818) 316-3126 or by e-mail at mmadler@sfvbj.com. His college advisor once told him that “grades were bulls**t” but that’s a column for another day.

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