Outstanding debt from Zell's leveraged buyout of Tribune, which also owns the Los Angeles Times and other media, caused the firm to file for bankruptcy. Still, he now says he won't sell Tribune Tower or the landmark Los Angeles Times building to help reduce the debt.
This was good news for me. I worked at The Chicago Trib for 13 years as a reporter and one of the editors and occasionally revisit the workplace on trips back to Chicago. The massive fourth floor newsroom with its two-story ceiling and a glass-walled fifth floor visitors' center is still one of the largest in the industry despite recent layoffs.
Although 40 stories aren't much these days side by side with Chicago's 90- and 100-story buildings, there's still something quite breathtaking about a ride on three different elevators to the small single room at the top of the tower, where editorial cartoonists used to do their work. The room's empty now.
Tribune Tower is still a tourist attraction in Chicago not only because of its historic architecture but also because of the scores of artifacts collected by the late Col. Robert McCormick, a World War I officer who traveled the world, bringing back pieces of pyramids or Greek temples and imbedding these in the granite at the Michigan Avenue street level of the tower as it was being built in the 1930s. On any weekend, weather permitting, crowds jam the art shows and other festivities on the Tribune Plaza and take time to read about the sometimes strange-looking objects sticking out from the Tribune Tower walls.
It's too bad readership and the advertising that supports newspapers aren't as rock-hard as the buildings housing the Chicago Tribune and Los Angeles Times. The other daily in Chicago, the Sun-Times, is in even worse financial shape, so Chicago could soon be a one-newspaper town.
Closer to home, it's the San Francisco Chronicle that's in trouble, making that city possibly the first among major centers to go without a daily newspaper. Hearst Corp. told employees late last month that continued and growing losses since 2001 could cause it to shut down the paper within a few weeks unless a buyer can be found.
In Seattle, Philadelphia, Detroit and in some smaller cities, morning dailies are for sale or likely to shut down. Last Friday, the Rocky Mountain News ended publishing its prize-winning tabloid after owner Scripps-Howard failed to find a buyer. Even the venerable New York Times, short of cash with a huge debt load, is trying to sell its Manhattan headquarters. But then other than an unattractive glass and steel building that occasionally attracts rappellers, it wouldn't be a loss to the New York landscape. At least Chicago's Sam Zell has an appreciation for unique architecture and will keep the city's iconic tower in the newspaper family for now.