Monday, December 8, 2008

Tribune Co. declares bankruptcy

The Tribune Company, the Chicago-based media group that owns the LA Times, has declared bankruptcy. Apparently it needs to restructure its debt. It took on a fair chunk of that debt last year when Sam Zell took it over.

Personally, I thot that was a stupid move. Sam Zell is apparently a great entrepreneur, but the newspaper business is going through some historically unprecedented changes, and I think it would be helpful at a time like this to have someone with some experience in the business, which Mr. Zell apparently does not. I agree with Josh Marshall that this turn of events should not surprise us. The newspaper business has been struggling with how to deal with the challenge of the Web for years. I'm not sure Sam Zell has recognized that.

I just performed an experiment. One of my favorite columns from Dan Neil, the LA Times car critic, was of the Ducati 999R, a wickedly fast motorcycle, published November 3, 2004. The more interesting the ride, the more interesting his writing. To wit, his comment on how powerful the engine of this demon bike is:

Its 150-hp V-twin motor runs on damned souls and is lubricated with the fat of unbaptized children.
My experiment was to find that article by running a search at I typed in "Dan Neil Ducati" (no quotes), and got 45 responses. Narrowing it down, I typed in "Dan Neil Ducati 999." Nothing.

Then I typed "dan neil la times ducati 999" in Google, and the article that I wanted was at the top of the search results. Perfect!

So Google could find an article in the that the LA Times search engine could not. That's just pathetic. Any wonder why they are losing money?

The LA Times has a lot going for it. It's still a good paper, it still puts a good emphasis on solid investigative reporting, and it's been innovating over the last few years. The Op-Ed page has changed significantly, I think for the better. Besides the political commentators, they have some great cultural commentators on the Op-Ed page. I think Jonah Goldberg is a joke, but, then again, William Kristol at the NY Times has been making a fool of himself as well, so there seems to be a paucity of intelligent conservative pundits these days. But Meghan Daum and Joel Stein are distinctly LA writers, and I love reading them both. I even went to a book reading by Meghan Daum.

Cultural criticism at the LA Times is particularly strong. Just about all of their cultural critics are top-notch. Mark Swed on classical music, Ann Powers on pop, Christopher Hawthorne on architecture, Mary McNamara on TV, Dan Neil on cars, it's a great lineup. I thot they made a mistake letting Carina Chocano go, but Kenneth Turan is good.

The Times also seems to be innovating on the print side of the medium. After the election, they sold extra copies of the election day issue. They also sold posters of the front page, and aluminum printing plates of that page. I went there the day they started selling these. It was a mob scene. Hotcakes never sold so well. They kept selling them for the next two weeks. I think they made a small fortune.

So the demand is there for the LA Times. One thing that confused me about Sam Zell loading up the Tribune Co. with debt was that it seemed like an odd strategy. Normally a business needs significant cash flow to deal with that kind of debt, but newspapers have been losing market share and subscribers for years. Didn't he see this coming?

David Geffen was one of the bidders for the Times when Zell bought it. I hope he's still interested, because I think Geffen would be a much better owner. He's resigned from Dreamworks, he has time. I just hope Sam Zell hasn't ruined it for him.

Update: I forgot to mention Booth Moore, the fashion critic at the Times, who I think is a very good critic.

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