With the battle for control of U-T San Diego raging behind closed doors, two distinctly dark-horse candidates to take over the troubled media operation have been surfaced by newspaper-industry blogger Ken Doctor.
The first to name Chicago's Tribune Publishing, Inc., as front runner for U-T ownership, Doctor also reported this week that another prospective proprietor is Rancho Santa Fe's John Lynch, possibly bankrolled by billionaire Democrat Ron Burkle.
An alliance between Lynch (loyal friend and employee of Republican sugar daddy Douglas Manchester, the U-T’s current owner) and Bill Clinton backer Burkle would be the latest odd twist in the saga of those vying to control San Diego's print destiny.
As reported here a year ago by Don Bauder, Lynch, chief executive of the paper, was moved aside of day-to-day control in favor of chief operating officer Mike Hodges.
"Beginning today, Papa Doug has assigned our vice chairman and CEO, John Lynch, to focus on our [mergers and acquisitions] and bringing these deals to fruition," Hodges said in February 6, 2014, memo to employees.
"Papa Doug has assigned me to run our day-to-day operations. Starting today, all divisions with U-T San Diego will report up through me."
Added Hodges, "While we had a strong year in a number of areas, we did not meet our financial goals in 2013. Accordingly there will be a restructure of our senior management team. Details will be forthcoming."
Manchester and Lynch had been responsible for buying and then quickly shuttering the Escondido-based North County Times, thereby silencing a longtime journalistic voice and putting a host of employees out of work.
Yet another U-T management reshuffle happened this January, with the departure of Hodges to run an internet marketing firm. U-T editor Jeff Light, who retained his editorial role, succeeded him.
"I feel really proud and confident of our team here, so I feel like we’ve got a lot going for us, to build on the great turnaround story that we’ve had here,” Light was quoted by the paper as saying.
According to Ken Doctor's blog post, when Lynch was kicked upstairs, Manchester encouraged him to buy the U-T himself. "Since last summer, Lynch has been trying to line up a private equity partner to get his deal done with Manchester."
The newspaper analyst's March 3 item said that the litigation-prone Lynch, a onetime radio executive responsible for the costly launch of the U-T’s now-defunct cable TV channel, would be putting in a bid for the paper this week.
"He may have lined up a name familiar to those tracking newspaper property sales of the last half-dozen years as a would-be partner: Ron Burkle. Burkle, who heads Yucaipa Companies and made his fortune in part on grocery chain roll-up, was mentioned early and often as the L.A. Times, Philadelphia Inquirer and other titles came up for, or looked like they would come up, for sale. Despite those frequent mentions, none of his bids for newspapers bore fruit.
Doctor reports that, unlike other bidders, Lynch is looking to buy the U-T’s real estate, which could turn the deal into an asset play similar to Manchester’s North County Times shutdown.
Burkle is best known in San Diego for his sprawling La Jolla Farms estate, where he has hosted a series of lavish Democratic fundraisers.
"Owned by supermarket billionaire Ron Burkle, an acknowledged collector of trophy properties," says a description of the manse on the website of the Pinnacle List, "the residence was at one time the largest single-family homes ever built with a steel frame."
As reported here in March 2004, Burkle rolled out the red carpet for then-Democratic presidential nominee John Kerry. Honorary chairs of the bash included ex–UCSD chancellor and UC president Richard Atkinson and wife Rita, billionaire Qualcomm founder Irwin Jacobs, and lawyer Wade Sanders. Like Kerry, Sanders was a Navy veteran of the Vietnam War. In December 2008, Sanders copped a plea to child pornography charges and was sentenced to 37 months in federal prison.
In 2005, Burkle tried to shield his bitter divorce case from media scrutiny by invoking a secrecy law authored by Democratic state senator Christine Kehoe of San Diego. A judge subsequently struck down the Kehoe law as a violation of the First Amendment.