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Tribune chain boss endorses the river of news as online model

Sam Zell, the real estate billionaire who snatched up the Tribune newspaper chain, took it private in an $8.3 billion buyout, shocked tender journalists with his forthright manner,  promised to build newspapers, not slash them, was hailed (nervously) by some as a saviour, cut staffing levels across the chain,  shrank newsholes, started burning the furniture to heat his house, mused about (horrors!) counting bylines and setting copy quotas for reporters, ain’t backing down none.

In a joint conference call with his chief operating officer Randy Michaels, and staff at the Hartford Courrant newspaper, Zell and Michaels defended their decisions to cut newsroom staff across the chain and trim editorial pages (i.e. increase the ad to editorial conent ratio) after having told the newsroom six months earlier:

"I do not believe that anybody can grow a business by reducing the number of employees," Zell said at the time. "It is not our game plan to, in effect, try and figure out how few people we can have run this business."

During his call Zell said when he made those comments last January no one could have predicted the "advertising revenue destruction" that had swept through the industry and his company. The cuts, he said, were triage, life saving.

But probably the most interesting comments came from his sidekick Michaels, a former shock jock who signalled clearly that he’s not satisfied with the way his newspapers approach online news. Micheals, of course, is much, much more than a former dj — he played a key role in building a radio giant, Clear Channel, almost doubling industry growth rates as he did so, and that’s the reason Zell tapped him to take the reins of the Tribune chain.

In the call Michaels said the job of newspapers online is simple: breaking news. Do that job well, he said and newspapers can reclaim the audiences they lost to radio, then television and now the net.

"We need to build — especially in markets where we have multiple media outlets — a breaking news center," he said. "And we need to re-create our websites so that instead of looking like a newspaper online, it looks like a breaking news site, with the most recent news first."

Lord love him. I’ve been saying for some time that the real model for newspapers on the net is something that combines Dave Winer’s 2005 notion of the River of News with radio and now an ex-radio guy has embraced the same concept. This is a good sign — a very good sign — for the online news biz.

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