Investment pundits have been scratching their heads this week over billionaire investor Sam Zell’s $8.2-billion purchase of Tribune Corp., publisher of the Chicago Tribune and Los Angeles Times, and owner of other old-media properties. Newspapers have been bleeding cash and losing both money and eyeballs to online news, job and classified sites over the past several years. So what does Zell, regarded as a legendary market timer, know that makes him willing to pay up for the Tribune when prospects for the business look so glum?
In a speech at Stanford Law School last night, Zell offered some insights—and if he acts on his words the consequences for Google and other providers of online news and information are likely to be significant. In an article in the soon-to-be Zell-owned LA Times, Zell was quoted as saying “If all the newspapers in America did not allow Google to steal their content for nothing, what would Google do, and how profitable would Google be?” Not very, he said.
He went on to say that there needed to be “a new deal and new formulas” between newspapers and Internet companies.
Which raises an interesting question: How will Zell’s attitude affect Topix.net, a news aggregator in which Tribune is a major investor?