Charter-school backer buys hefty stake in Union-Tribune

Michael Ferro latest player in high-dollar Chicago boardroom political poker

Be it the wandering football team or the fate of the hometown newspaper, rank-and-file San Diegans are usually the last to know about the behind-the-scenes wheeling-and-dealing of their billionaire owners.

Dean Spanos

Dean Spanos

Arguably there is more popular interest in the financial maneuverings of Chargers owner Dean Spanos than the chronically downward course of the daily paper known as the Union-Tribune.

But the economic interests of the two have been linked for years, with the latest news promising more intrigue to come regarding both.

Spanos has been making the rounds of local TV sports anchors in what is seen in local political circles as a slickly engineered PR offensive to get the drop on Republican mayor Kevin Falconer.

The mayor currently faces the toxic dilemma of either raiding the city treasury for hundreds of millions of dollars for Spanos's benefit or being blamed by Spanos for the team's putative flight to L.A.

Meanwhile, over at the U-T, which has been running hot and cold on the Chargers-exit-versus-taxpayer-subsidy saga, yet another billionaire master from out of town with ties to the nation's charter-school movement has emerged to scramble the flagging operation's financial fortunes and raise further questions about its editorial slant.

Michael Ferro

Michael Ferro

In a deal announced February 4, Chicagoan Michael Ferro and his Merrick Media, already majority owner of the Chicago Sun-Times, added to his nascent newspaper empire by snapping up almost 17 percent of the stock of Tribune Publishing, owner of the Chicago Tribune, Los Angeles Times, San Diego Union-Tribune, and a raft of other papers.

As part of the $44.4 million deal, Ferro replaced ex–L.A. Times publisher Eddy Hartenstein as nonexecutive chairman of Tribune's board.

"It's not as simple as one may think," Ferro was quoted as saying by the Chicago Tribune about reversing the papers' years of decline.

"It's not about digital subscribers or print. Some of the biggest companies in the world are using our data and making billions of dollars on it, and we need to find a way how we tap into that so that our journalism remains stronger than ever."

According to the Tribune account, "Ferro said he sought to create more value from Tribune Publishing content, develop new digital properties and leverage untapped logistics capabilities associated with newspaper distribution.”

The matter of exactly how to value any of the output produced by the severely depleted staffs of the papers remains unaddressed. Along with the Ferro announcement, Tribune Publishing said it was eliminating its 70-cent-per-share annual cash dividend.

Some speculate that a portion of Ferro's investment could be applied to the purchase of the Orange County Register, long said to be a Tribune acquisition target. The newspaper is set for a bankruptcy auction in March.

Eli Broad

Eli Broad

Austin Beutner

Austin Beutner

from LAX Coastal Chamber of Commerce YouTube video

One who may be taking notice of the latest corporate wheeling-dealing is Los Angeles billionaire Democrat and charter-school advocate Eli Broad, whose onetime business associate Austin Beutner was let go as publisher of the L.A. Times and Union-Tribune in September after a reportedly failed attempt by Broad to take over both the Times and U-T.

After Beutner's departure, Broad's backers waged a public relations campaign urging Tribune Publishing to sell the Times to someone who lived in Los Angeles. Multiple sources, including Fox media baron Rupert Murdoch, claimed Broad was still pursing his offer for the paper, which Broad subsequently denied.

The Broad back-and-forth was accompanied by criticism from teachers’ union representatives who feared he would use the papers to further his personal political goals.

Then in December came the revelation that Republican Las Vegas hotel mogul Sheldon Adelson had quietly purchased the Las Vegas Review Journal, focusing widespread attention on the political motives of billionaire newspaper buyers in general.

Ken Doctor

Ken Doctor

In a February 4 online dispatch, media blogger Ken Doctor reports that Adelson has been rapidly asserting control over the R-J.

"A new publisher has appeared overnight at the paper, a new editor will be installed as soon as Friday, and, sources tell me, stories involving new owner Sheldon Adelson are being reviewed, changed or killed almost daily."

Adds Doctor, "Further, the newsroom is abuzz with word of a list of a half a dozen or so journalists whose work has rubbed Adelson the wrong way over the years, and who may soon be targeted for departure in what one insider describes as a ‘house-cleaning.’”

With Broad's attempts to pick up the L.A. Times and San Diego U-T apparently on hold, attention has shifted to Ferro's motives and background, which, whether coincidentally or not, includes bankrolling the charter-school movement also financially favored by Broad.

"Michael Ferro intends to develop a network of Chicago Math & Science Elementary Academies under the city of Chicago's charter school initiative, Renaissance 2010," notes Ferro's profile on the website of the Aspen Institute, where he is a Henry Crown Fellow.

"These charter elementary schools will develop a rigorous curriculum (exceeding the current State of Illinois standards), across all academic disciplines, including: science, math, the integration of technology, music appreciation, foreign language instruction, physical education and the performing arts."

Whether the two know each other was not immediately known, though they each gave $25,000 to the mayoral campaign of Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel in 2010.

In September 2014, the Chicago Sun-Times, owned by Ferro's holding company, reported that he was on the board of New Schools of Chicago, a charter group that has drawn flak from teachers' union representatives.

Ferro and Broad have both had a longtime interest in acquiring Tribune assets. In April 2013, they were separately listed by Crain's Chicago Business as potential buyers of the company. Other would-be purchasers then included David and Charles Koch, the billionaire Republican brothers.

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I was surprised to learn that not quite 17% of Tribunes stock is valued at over 44 million clams. Seems overvalued for something whose analog days are numbered.

I also was intrigued by Ferro's statement, " Some of the biggest companies in the world are using our data ( Tribune Publishing) and making billions of dollars on it, and we need to find a way how we tap into that." What data would that be? And multiple companies are making billions off of it? Off of what I wonder,,,,,, I'm thinking maybe the Trib's seemingly over-inflated value could be used as collateral while shopping at Megalo CharterSchoolMart

I think you subtly equate "charter-school backer" with corporate evil-doer. In fact there's a quality difference in the charter schools backed by wannabe newspaper moguls Michael Ferro in Chicago and Eli Broad in Los Angeles and the disastrous record of traditional public schools in those cities.

The public schools of Chicago and Los Angeles continue to deliver for their adult employees, but they miserably fail legions of poor children who have no alternatives. In San Diego, our public school record is more mixed, with pockets of success and disaster. Past charters foundered because of inept or exploitive management, but we have had numerous charter successes, notably the High Tech secondary charters backed by the Jacobs family, the Preuss School at UCSD and Gompers Academy.

If mega-rich moguls these days focus their attention and money on saving local newspapers and keeping public education alive via the charter mechanism, I'd say we are all better off. It's new and different, but it's a big improvement over the status quo.

Own the Media and you control most to the public debate about what is (and is not) discussed in America.

The SD Reader will become ever more important as all the local newspapers choose to support positive reporting about Big Corp.'s and those that own them.

Imagine how much more information we wold have about #SanOnofreGate ** if local Media was able to report on it without worrying about SCE and SDG&E influence on them and local elected Officials.

** The new hashtag that will allow you to keep up to date on the ongoing investigation into the multi-billion $ SCE-CPUC ripoff.

Newspapers need to adopt their advertising to the the digital age. People are not interested in seeing large ads on a web site. Newspapers have failed to realize this and thus have lost a of subscribers. They ideally need a keyword advertising like Google has.

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