US media caught a cold in February

For American newspapers, February – according to the New York Times – was the "cruelest month."

Ad income for virtually every big newspaper was down. At USA Today the country's biggest newspaper, ad revenue was down 14 per cent, at The Wall Street Journal ten per cent, at The NY Times six percent.

It was the same all over the country – in Chicago, Miami, Tampa, local papers all reported declines.

The fear is the decline will continue, probably for years. Yet despite the gloomy predictions there is finally a possible buyer for the trouble plagued Los Angeles Times plus The Chicago Tribune and The Baltimore Sun – all part of The Tribune Group – which has been on the market since September without a sale. Not even a serious nibble.

There was even talk of "restructuring" the company, which also owns about 23 television stations and The Chicago Cubs baseball team.

Now, on to the scene comes Samuel Zell, a self-made American multi-millionaire businessman, who like Mort Zuckerman who owns the NY Daily News and US News & World Report, made his fortune in real-estate. He and another fellow real-estate developer Eli Broad plus California supermarket millionaire Ronald Burkle (he's the man who accused the NY Post gossip writer Jared Paul Stern of trying to extort money from him to keep his name out of the gossip pages) have joined forces and are submitting a bid for The Tribune Group . They are apparently undeterred by the pessimistic reports that newspapers are on their last legs.

They do apparently believe there is money still to be made – and newspapers can still be profitable. Not that Zell has, he admits, any special affection for newspapers or wants to wield editorial power – but because he wants to make money.

The son of Polish refugees, Zell has always been an entrepreneur. While a student in Michigan he began buying substandard houses and renting them to other students. Over the years he has invested in cruise ships, trailer parks and radio stations.

His only venture into the publishing world was when he was at high school he would buy copies of Playboy from street vendors in Chicago for 50 cents, take them back home to the suburbs and sell them to neighbours for three or four times what he paid. "I have always been intrigued by inefficient markets", he once told an interviewer.


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