With many of San Diego's few remaining journalism jobs hanging in the balance, there's fresh word on the street that the Union-Tribune could be in new hands within mere months.
"The odds are better than even that there will be a new bid by (Los Angeles billionaire Eli) Broad and associates for Tribune Publishing by year's end," newspaper industry expert Ken Doctor predicted to the Chicago Tribune in a Thursday morning story about the ultimate fate of the troubled Union-Tribune owner.
Doctor, who broke news of the firing of Broad associate Austin Beutner from his dual publishing posts at the Los Angeles Times and San Diego Union-Tribune in September, as well as first revealing the U-T takeover in March, is widely seen as having an inside line to onetime Wall Street hedge-fund figure Beutner, who in turn is privy to Broad's intentions.
The takeover could be assisted by onetime Broad associate and fellow Angeleno Bruce Karsh, who runs Oaktree Capital Management which the Chicago Tribune story notes owns about 18 percent of Tribune Publishing's stock, making it the company's largest single holder.
"Oaktree will ultimately sell Tribune Publishing, perhaps sooner than the ostensible two-year window to keep the August 2014 spinoff from Tribune Media tax free," according to the story.
"SEC filings make it clear that the company is permitted to sell before then with Tribune Media's consent or if it obtains a supplemental IRS ruling."
If Broad and associates do manage to close a deal for the Times and U-T, or the entire Tribune chain, which includes papers in Chicago and Baltimore, his most talked-about partner is fellow Democratic billionaire Irwin Jacobs of La Jolla, who shares Broad's penchant for big-money Democratic and school-board politics.
Their alliance dates back to October 2002, when Broad's foundation made six-figure contributions to two small East Coast charities that subsequently financed a series of take-no-prisoners hit pieces and television spots in a San Diego Unified board race in which Jacobs also had an interest.
Jacobs — who, like Broad, has given big to president Barack Obama and presidential hopeful Hillary Clinton — is a heavy political and nonprofit media giver in San Diego.
As reported here last month, the coordinator of an effort backing Beutner and urging Tribune Publishing to sell the L.A. Times to a local owner is Dan Schnur, an ex–Pete Wilson aide whose campaign for California secretary of state last year was bankrolled largely by contributors who support Broad's views on public education.
For his part, Beutner has been writing op-ed pieces and making speeches, including one set for October 22 at Columbia University’s journalism school, defending his brief but controversial tenure at the helm of the Southern California newspapers.
Not all have been convinced. According to the Chicago Tribune story, “A high-level Oaktree source said Beutner, while innovative, ‘wasn't very focused on the economic realities of the newspapers.’”
But if Broad takes over the papers and opens his checkbook to subsidize their operation, the theory goes, a rehired Beutner would no longer have to worry about the bottom line, and plenty of time to play politics with the papers.
“If California’s newspapers are to survive, they’ll have to do much more than publish the news,” opinion writer Joe Mathews recently suggested.
“They’ll have to be direct actors in political and civic debates, combining journalism and activism in ways that make their importance indisputable.”
In addition to his Tribune acquisition efforts, Broad has been stirring the pot of Louisiana politics with a $250,000 contribution to a political action committee run by Lane Grigsby.
The Baton Rouge businessman is campaigning to preserve the current majority on the state's board of education that is favorable to Broad’s education-reform strategies.
Broad has been joined by fellow billionaires Alice and Jim Walton of Arkansas, from the family of Walmart founders Sam and Bill Walton, according to the blog of Diane Ravitch.
Like Broad, the Waltons have also been players in San Diego school politics, with the late John Walton and his wife backing Broad and Jacobs’s November 2000 hit pieces with $100,000.
Meanwhile, on October 21, Broad's nonprofit foundation announced it had picked ex-Louisiana superintendent of public education Paul Pastorek, now an executive of the foundation, to run its effort to expand Los Angeles charter schools.
"Few issues have roiled the LA Unified community more than the foundation’s plan to expand the number of charter schools in the district," reports LA School Report.
"The LA teachers union...has also attacked the plan as part of the Broads’ latest effort to 'privatize' public education at the cost of union teaching jobs."
In an open letter to supporters, Broad and his wife Edythe countered, "For the past several years, we have heard from parents, teachers and community members that there are not enough high-quality public school options, especially in low-income communities of color.”
Should Broad manage to obtain control of the U-T and L.A. Times, the octogenarian could have the opportunity to dramatically reshape San Diego Unified and its union-dominated board, already under fire by some of his local allies.