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Trib bankruptcy a Zell of a deal

by Roger Ebert

The Sun-Times and the Tribune have been rivals since time immemorial. But as the Tribune files for Chapter 11, this is no time to gloat. It is a time to point fingers, and mine is pointed at Sam Zell. The Tribune is in crisis because it cannot pay the interest on his debt.

Here at the Sun-Times, we know all about the depredations of owners. I will not bore you again with my complaints about the millions that Conrad Black and David Radler plundered from the company. Both are currently behind bars, even though Lord Black hired the best defense team that our money could buy, and we are still paying his legal fees.

At least it can be said that Lord Black was a newspaperman with taste, and a gifted writer. But what of Mr. Zell? He borrowed way too much money to overpay for the Tribune, Los Angeles Times and other big papers, the Chicago Cubs and a stable of TV and radio stations. Now he cannot pay the interest. There is no evidence he had other than a financial interest in his purchase. He has discussed condos in Tribune Tower, the sale of the name of Wrigley Field as a corporate naming opportunity, and other ways to milk his mortgaged cow.

The Tribune long billed itself as “The World’s Greatest Newspaper,” and in its eyes, at least, that was once true. As a teenager working on the Champaign-Urbana News-Gazette, I heard my editors refer to it as the Holy Grail. The institution once shook with the thunder of giants like Col. Robert McCormick, Clayton Kirkpatrick, Walter M. Trohan and Ring Lardner. The Sunday paper grew so heavy there was a joke: It lost older readers no longer strong enough to carry it home.

Zell recently observed that no paper ever made money because of its Pulitzers. I would add that no paper ever made money because of its putzes, which Zell has proven. The lesson here is that journalists create newspapers, and their owners should be in sympathy with that purpose. Sam Zell made his purchase because he wanted to make money.

There are quicker ways to make money than buying newspapers, although for some people, few more satisfying. When I told my mom I wanted to be a newspaperman, she said, “Oh, honey, if that’s what you want to do, I suppose so. But they don’t make any money.” Even she knew that.

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