The crass, flashy Chicago real-estate mogul has been the newspaper industry's most despised villain since he took control of Tribune, the conglomerate whose holdings include the Chicago Tribune, the Los Angeles Times and numerous other dailies and TV stations, in December 2007. Sure, Arianna Huffington, Craig Newmark and Google (GOOG) have all been accused by turns of destroying journalism. But none can compare to Zell, who's made it clear he thinks newspapers would be better off without all those pesky reporters and editors dragging them down.
Soon, however, Zell may be little more than an unpleasant memory, according to a new report. A reorganization plan in the works for Tribune, which filed for Chapter 11 six months ago, could strip him of the control he gained through his complicated, heavily-leveraged acquisition of the company and transfer it to the banks and other investors that hold most of the firm's $8.6 billion in debt:
[T]he plan's outline raises questions about whether the senior lender group would want to retain Zell and his management team or seek new leadership for the company. It also poses the question of whether Zell would want to stay without a large ongoing stake in the company.It would be a miracle -- and not the good kind of miracle -- were the lender group to decide Zell was indeed the man to lead Tribune into the future. In his brief time running the conglomerate, he has shown a startling combination of hubris paired with lack of vision. Zell thought fixing Tribune would be nothing more than a matter of taking costs out and rejiggering the products to appeal more to readers and advertisers. He actually thought it would be easy.
No, Zell's not the only media mogul who hastened the downfall of a potentially healthy company by loading it up with crippling amounts of debt at the worst possible moment. Far from it. But no one else has done it with quite such naked greed, or such open contempt for the values of the institutions in his care. All Zell ever had to recommend him as a newspaper owner were new ideas and business acumen. The new ideas proved to be not new at all, and the business savvy proved, if not illusory, then at least irrelevant. The next guy may not be an improvement, but he can't be any worse.