As a lowly scribe with limited financial acumen (hence my career choice), I’ve been struggling to make sense out of the news that my corporate overlords at Tribune have accepted a buyout offer from the striped-shirted, Lincoln-bearded real estate mogul Sam Zell. As a print journalist and an observer of the classical music world, I work in not one but two industries that are boldly confronting their past and gingerly backing into the future. Not even operagoers with memories of Elisabeth Schwarzkopf in her salad days have a more intense sense of nostalgia than newspaper people; not even the recording industry has been more muddled about how to make a transition from a solid piece of packaging to an online product.
I firmly believe that the human need for a constant flow of good, thoughtful writing about the world around us – including the arts - is as fundamental as the craving for music. What’s mystifying is that those whose mission in life it is to satisfy the seemingly equally basic need for porn are so much more successful in translating demand into revenue.
Meanwhile, the best minds in the newspaper industry are industriously reacting to the declining number of paying customers by giving diehards less and less reason to pay for the product we’re putting out. The current strategy is bifurcated. Online, we're saying: "You like getting news for free? Great, we're doing what we can to give you more." And in print, we're saying: “You think you’re not interested in today’s newspaper? Wait until you see tomorrow’s. That’ll be really dull.” If that seems as crazy to Zell as it does to me, I’ll greet him with flowers.
Meanwhile, Jack Shafer, the saturnine media critic at Slate, is bleak about the Zell deal and the promise of a Employee Stock Ownership Plan (ESOP). This was the paragraph that caught my eye:
If I worked for Tribune, I'd say forget the ESOP and begin looking for a new job. I'll bet the company’s best journalists are already packing their keyboards. The last good journalist out won't have to turn out the lights. The electric utility will already have shut off the power.
I sure hope he doesn’t know what he’s talking about.