Still looking for the pony amid news biz blues

April 03, 2007|By JEAN MARBELLA

Alfonso Soriano and I both woke up yesterday to find out we'd been sold, but somehow, I don't think he was quite as unsettled by the news as I was.

It was Opening Day, after all, and the first day of the rest of his eight-year, $136 million contract with the Cubs, so surely he had other things on his mind. Besides, being a millionaire baseball player tends to buy you a little more insouciance when it comes to ownership changes than being a thousandaire columnist at The Sun.

Still, both the Cubs and The Sun are owned by Tribune Co., which yesterday was sold to a guy worth many multiples of even Soriano, and certainly me: billionaire real estate magnate Sam Zell.

Yeah, I'd never heard of him either - until, that is, he jumped into the market for Tribune Co. in February, and yet now we're thisclose. The terms of the deal involve an Employee Stock Ownership Plan, or ESOP, footing some of the cost of the sale, which means I will be Zell's co-owner of the company.

Not that I asked to be, or was consulted in advance, but it seems one way of becoming a billionaire is by using other people's money to buy stuff. Although the purchase price of the company is $8.2 billion, Zell's investment is a mere - relatively speaking, of course - $315 million. Or, in terms that a baseball fan such as myself can understand, a couple of Sorianos, plus change.

Soriano, despite being a fellow Tribune Co. employee, actually doesn't have to worry about the ESOP, or co-owning his own company. The first announcement of the newly sold Tribune Co. was that, at the end of the baseball season, it was going to unload the Cubs. Another decision that my co-owner Zell apparently failed to consult me on: Is this any way to start off an intimate - at least an economically intimate - relationship?

Having grown up in Chicago, I spent much of my youth living, but mostly dying, for the Cubs. (If you're not from Chicago, you may not recognize them without the tiresome adjectives that tend to precede their name - the hapless Cubs, the woebegone Cubs, or the lovable-loser Cubs.) I think I would have liked owning the Cubs, hanging out in Wrigley Field with my new co-owner and BFF, Sammy Z, and going to the Cubby Bear afterward for an Old Style. I bet he'd have my back if we ran into any of those marauding Chicago cops.

Instead, I'm merely going to co-own The Sun and the other Tribune Co. newspapers.

Wouldn't you know it, after 30 years in journalism, I finally become a newspaper magnate when - if you believe the dour press about the industry lately - the business is declining. That's the picture you get, at least, if you read a Web site like Romenesko, which posts news about, well, news. You'll read about various newspapers' hirings, firings, triumphs, embarrassments, etc. - but most of all, these days, you'll read about staff layoffs and buyouts and cutbacks.

It's insanely solipsistic, and these days - when newspapers are suffering through declining revenues and readership, and heightened competition from the Internet and other media - pretty depressing. And yet, because reporters are generally a perverse lot, there's something wonderfully awful about wallowing in all the muck that Romenesko rakes into one place on the Web. The news is so bad, you have to think - as the joke goes about that optimistic kid on Christmas Day, happily digging through a pile of horse manure under the tree - there must be a pony here somewhere.

The current pony, to stretch the metaphor, is either local ownership or privatization, and I guess the Chicago-based Tribune Co. is trying both by going with Zell, the local bidder who beat out his L.A.-based competitors, and taking the public company private. The theory there is it removes newspapers from the pressures of Wall Street, which generally thinks that the future of newspapers is behind them.

I guess we'll see. Despite what seems like a lifetime in newspapers, I missed out on the whole era of privately owned newspapers. In my 30 years in the business, the papers I've worked for all have been owned by one corporation or another. Local ownership seemed awfully quaint - in fact, I remember a friend who worked for a small paper where, as an annual bonus, the owner would slaughter one of his cattle and the staff would line up in the parking lot to get their share.

It's Opening Day, so I may be doubly cursed with optimism, or whatever it is that keeps Cub fans and newspaper employees going. So, today, at least, I'm going to keep looking for that pony.

jean.marbella@baltsun.com

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