Zell: There's 'Keen Interest' in Newsday But No Sale Yet

Sam Zell was asked about the potential sale of Newsday in a conference call with investors, and said there’s an interest among outsiders but no decision has been made yet.

“As we previously acknowledged, we have been approached by a number of parties that have a keen interest,” he said, when in fact it’s the first time he’s acknowledged this publicly. “We have reached no conclusions with anybody at this juncture. And we’re discussing if that does or does not make sense for us and the Tribune Company going forward.”

Reuters reported last week that Mort Zuckerman had formally bid on the paper, but we haven’t heard much on that front since. The Dolans reportedly has no interest in Newsday, which leaves known suitors as Rupert Murdoch and Jared Kushner, the owner and publisher of the Observer.

Mr. Zell said that over the next two weeks, he’ll get the ball rolling on a sale of the Chicago Cubs and he expects that that sale will be wrapped up before the end of the year.

Earlier in the call, Randy Michaels, Tribune’s C.E.O., revisited a Zell-theory on newspapers: people want local coverage. “People want more local news, but we put Zimbabwe on the front page instead.” Mr. Michaels said that in one of the company’s smaller papers, The Newport News, they created a separate news section for world and business news. “We did have six cancellations but not enough to change it back,” he said. Could this be a future fate awaiting the L.A. Times?

Well, speaking of the L.A. Times, no one spoke about it in this conference call. So whether those rumors about David Geffen are true, we’re still in the dark. (But David Hiller, the L.A. Times publisher, told Forbes today that Sam Zell has told him he wanted to keep the paper and that foreign coverage will still appear on the front page. “I think what we’ll do over time is gauge what size should it be, where those correspondents are allocated, and also look at how we do collaborate with, for example, our sister paper the Chicago Tribune, which has foreign correspondents, and make sure we get the maximum reach in terms of coordinating where we are,” he said. (A mini Knight Ridder, then?)

“Quite simply, we have a revenue problem,” said Mr. Michaels. One of the ways to fix that is to sell assets. Earlier in the call, Mr. Zell said that business was looking so bad that “we’re forced to consider the divestiture of some of our assets.”

Much of the conference call was focused on how to reinvigorate the sales side. “We need to motivate our sales staff and one of the ways we can do that is with rewards,” said Mr. Michaels. So base salaries are going to move lower, and incentives for a sale will get higher.

But both Mr. Zell and Mr. Michaels said they are ready to experiment. Mr. Michaels said the company is going to start tinkering with its six smallest newspapers. They’ll be used as a sort of laboratory as they try to foresee what newspapers will look like in 2010. He didn’t tell us what they’re doing, but whatever works, don’t be surprised if it’s applied to their bigger papers.

Quarterly numbers weren’t released today by Tribune, but expect them in late May, Mr. Zell said. He said the point of this call was to remind everyone–in case they don’t have Youtube–that they’re “alive and well” despite whatever credit problems they have.

Zell: There's 'Keen Interest' in Newsday But No Sale Yet