"I think this would be a good place to park my motorcycle," he said.
Tough talking, matter-of-fact, confident and sometimes combative, Zell said in an interview with Chicago Tribune business reporters and editors that he bought Tribune Co. as a long-term investment, and that he believes newspapers and other so-called old media have plenty of profitable life ahead in the age of the Internet.
He said that Tribune management deserves a chance to prove itself freed from the distractions that have come with its declining stock price.
An avid reader of newspapers who doesn't read news online or own a BlackBerry, Zell believes quality "relevant" content is the key to Tribune's future, whether it is on television, in newspapers or online.
What he likes about Tribune is the challenge, and he doesn't mind disagreement.
What he doesn't like and won't tolerate is betrayal.
Los Angeles billionaire Eli Broad contacted Zell when it appeared Zell's Tribune bid would win. He wanted to join Zell as a partner, but Zell said he wouldn't consider it until the deal was complete.
The next day, Broad and fellow Los Angeles billionaire Ron Burkle sent Tribune a letter alleging Zell had an unfair advantage in preparing his proposal.
This didn't sit well with Zell.
"If somebody calls me and says I want to be a partner, and the next day tries to stick a knife in my back, tell me again why I would want to do business with him?" Zell said.
Burkle and Broad continue to confer with their advisers to study their options with regard to Tribune, a source said. Zell's deal with Tribune includes a breakup fee of only $25 million.
Of greater concern to Zell, 65, is what people will spend 50 cents a day on.
"If you are relevant, people are going to buy the newspaper," he said. "If you're not relevant, then people will stop buying the newspaper and stop advertising and we'll all be in a stew of trouble.
"I use that word 'relevant' and I'll be the first to tell you I don't know what it means other than, in effect, ultimately just like anybody, you have customers, and some way or another we have to find a way how to service them. I don't have an opinion as to what you write, believe it or not, other than what you write has to be truthful and relevant. And if it is, then I think the customer is there for you, and that translates into viable businesses."
He is investing in Tribune because he sees it as "a great challenge. ... Everything I do is motivated by doing it best, doing it different, answering the questions that no one else could."
Until Zell's deal, many questions concerning Tribune Co. stemmed from its 2000 acquisition of the Times Mirror Co., which brought with it not just the Los Angeles Times and other media properties, but also brought the Chandler family aboard as a major shareholder. It has not been an easy fit.
Zell, whose deal will cash out the Chandlers, said it "would be unfair to totally judge Tribune's management on the events of the last three or four years." Though he wouldn't mention the Chandlers by name, Zell said "external distractions were very, very difficult here and, therefore, dramatically impacted the ability of the company to function."