ROBERT SIEGEL, host:
From NPR News, this ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Robert Sigel.
MICHELE NORRIS, host:
And I'm Michele Norris.
This past December, billionaire Sam Zell took over the Tribune Company. Zell swept in, promising to turn around the company's troubled newspapers. The chain includes the Chicago Tribune, Newsday and the Los Angeles Times.
But profits are plunging. And now, NPR has obtained recordings of the tough-talking CEO speaking to employees.
As NPR's David Folkenflik reports, those recordings help explain why some Tribune journalists fear the leader they once thought would save them.
DAVID FOLKENFLIK: Tribune's new big boss speaks loudly and carries a big stick.
Mr. SAM ZELL (CEO, Tribune Co.): Three guys in a garage create YouTube, and we've got 800 people in Chicago who don't know their ass from a hole in the ground.
FOLKENFLIK: Sam Zell has already fired a bunch of executives at his Chicago headquarters and says he wants radical change at the company's 11 daily papers and 23 television stations to happen…
Mr. ZELL: Tomorrow, yesterday. You chronicle what we have done in 60 days. And I promise you, the next 60 days are going to be even more tumultuous.
FOLKENFLIK: The 66-year-old real estate magnate relaxes by motorcycling, jokes publicly about the success of online pornography, and describes himself as the Viagra of the newspaper world.
Zell's longtime lawyer, David Bradford, says that's just Sam being Sam.
Attorney DAVID BRADFORD (Jenner & Block LLC): He's a ton of fun. He's very inspiring. He's got a great sense of humor. He's somebody who speaks the unvarnished truth.
FOLKENFLIK: Okay. So, let me lay down some unvarnished truth. Zell took over Tribune by borrowing billions against the future retirement funds of its employees. So he effectively paid only $315 million, and now Tribune is $12 billion in debt. As ad revenues plunge, Zell thinks a lot about that debt.
Mr. ZELL: Every month, I've got to make the payment. Every month, I've got to make the payment.
FOLKENFLIK: So Zell is now considering the sale of Newsday in Long Island -one of his most profitable dailies. And while he says Tribune's integrity is not for sale, when one Orlando Sentinel photographer asked him pointedly about the public service mission of newspapers, Zell derided her journalistic arrogance and cursed at her.
No paper frustrates Zell more than the Los Angeles Times - Tribune's largest and most prestigious paper - because its profits are slipping away. And nothing grates more than the big Washington bureau. Zell told journalists there they should find new ways to save money and new ways to make it.
Mr. ZELL: This is the first unit of a Tribune that I've talked to. It doesn't generate any revenue. So all of you are overhead.
FOLKENFLIK: That's from a recording obtained by NPR of a combative meeting Zell held in late February. It was with the Washington staff of the L.A. Times, the Chicago Tribune and their sister papers. Zell said he's a savior. No one else wanted to buy Tribune after the company's former executives managed it so poorly they had to sell it.
But NPR's interviews with a dozen Tribune company journalists found they're skeptical of Zell.
Political reporter Joe Mathews, who attended that Washington meeting, has just left the L.A. Times, leaping at the chance to go write at a think tank.
Mr. JOE MATHEWS (Former L.A. Times Reporter): Boy, I'm not sure I understand anymore where the paper is at. There's been so much change at the top - in ownership, in editors. I'm sort of confused about direction.
FOLKENFLIK: And Zell has offered little clarity, says former newspaper editor Alan Mutter, a digital media investor who writes the blog Reflections of a Newsosaur.
Mr. ALAN MUTTER (Digital Media Investor; Blogger, Reflections of a Newsosaur): Going in and telling people, what you're doing isn't quite good enough and it needs to change, and not telling them how it's supposed to change, I think that's a problem.
FOLKENFLIK: Zell has invited ideas from employees. But at that Washington meeting, he swatted away reporters' suggestions and made it clear he thinks the Washington bureau is bloated.
Mr. ZELL: Does it really require six people or nine people to cover the same Iraq story? And I'm going to find out, and it can be done one of two ways. I can do it or you can do it. Your choice.
FOLKENFLIK: Since then, that L.A. Times bureau has learned it must slice its staff from 47 people to 28 - part of deep, company-wide cuts. Yet former reporter Joe Mathews says he's most concerned about the call for journalists to think of new ways to make money.
Mr. MATHEWS: I always thought there's kind of a bright line there. And if you did that sort of thing, you'd be fired. Reporters are there to serve readers: to find the truth, to find facts, and present them to readers in as engaging a way as possible.
FOLKENFLIK: Zell argued that bright lines are a luxury.
Mr. ZELL: Am I the only person in this room who really wants to win? We are in crisis mode. The days of the newspaper being some kind of a holy monopoly are over.
FOLKENFLIK: Zell declined comment until a conference call with lenders next week. As he said, every month, he has to make the payments.
David Folkenflik, NPR News.
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.