Let them eat steak, Union-Tribune's master proclaims

Black box with c-note and golden deck of cards invites Chicago's super-rich to birthday bash

Michael Ferro
  • Michael Ferro
  • from a Bloomberg broadcast

The San Diego Union-Tribune's corporate owner, infamously known as tronc, may soon be sold — or not, depending on who is doing the talking — but one thing seems certain: tronc’s current honcho Michael Ferro has just staged the biggest birthday blow-out of his life.

The wheeler-dealer from Chicago turns 50 on July 24, and in his own honor invited about 300 of his closest friends to a July 21 bash at the posh Chicago Cut Steakhouse, reports Crain's Chicago Business.

John Bucksbaum

John Bucksbaum

"The invitation this year suggests Ferro is flush," says the account.

"It was delivered in a black box stamped with 'MJ2,' the name he gives the party in honor not only of his July 24 birthday but that of pals John Canning, who is chairman of Chicago-based private-equity firm Madison Dearborn Partners, and real estate developer John Bucksbaum, who is CEO of Bucksbaum Retail Properties.”

John A. Canning, Jr.

John A. Canning, Jr.

Added the story, “Inside the box was another hinged black box with a glass top delivering an early party favor—a shiny gold deck of cards emblazoned with a $100 bill, two rows of gold coins and five gold dice (some of which apparently are covered in real gold foil). Last year, guests received an Apple Watch at the affair."

Continues Crain's: "Ferro reserves the dining room and outdoor patio overlooking the Chicago River at the prominent steak restaurant, where he is an investor, for the affair. The list of invitees is mainly limited to men, though one-time Sun-Times Splash columnist and ex-Playboy Bunny Jenny McCarthy made a cameo appearance one year to sing ‘Happy Birthday’ to the honorees."

Meanwhile, tronc's increasingly rag-tag newspaper chain continues to twist in the wind, awaiting a promised high-tech makeover that was rolled out last month to widespread derision via an online video omitting any mention of the company's San Diego paper.

Jeff Light

Jeff Light

As intrigue continues regarding the ultimate fate of tronc and the Union-Tribune — with newspaper industry blogger Ken Doctor speculating that Ferro might be forced to sell the chain to newspaper giant Gannett Co. — U-T editor and publisher Jeff Light has taken to the paper's "Readers' Representative" column to present a vigorous defense of his latest owner.

"In many ways, tronc is a new beginning," proclaimed Light. "It represents an effort to do what every legacy media company is trying to do — unlock the power of original content in a world that has tilted toward aggregators and click bait."

He added, "There are two important elements to this business. The first is creating provocative content that challenges assumptions, creates insight and holds people accountable. That’s what our audience demands on every platform. The other thing we need is a sound business model. The company has a commitment to building both."

Irwin Jacobs

Irwin Jacobs

Light dismissed widespread concern about who would ultimately control the fate of the city's only daily newspaper, which has long engaged in closed-door political power plays, the latest over revived plans by La Jolla billionaire Irwin Jacobs to bulldoze new access roads and a mammoth parking garage into the heart of Balboa Park.

"I’m not sure readers should worry too much about the battle to get our shares, or about all the posturing that came with it," he said. "We are publicly traded, and the market will sort it out in the end."

Despite Light's professed insouciance, there is fear in some quarters that Jacobs already wields untoward influence over the U-T and could soon gain even more.

On July 5, just five days after the billionaire revealed his park plan to the public, the paper endorsed the controversial makeover, asserting the project was "long overdue."

Eli Broad

Eli Broad

One widely discussed scenario advanced by media writer Doctor has Gannett ultimately prevailing in its battle for tronc, then flipping control of the U-T and its sister southern California paper, the Los Angeles Times, to L.A. billionaire Eli Broad, a longtime big-money political ally of fellow Democrat Jacobs.

"Selling the LA Times — to Eli Broad, perchance — may follow, reducing costs and concentrating cost savings in Gannett-owned geographic clusters," speculated Doctor in an April 15 post.

The fate of the Times and the Union-Tribune are now locked together by the fact that tronc, formerly known as Tribune Publishing, has shut down the U-T's presses and now prints the paper in downtown L.A., trucking it south each night.

Presumably, a takeover of the Times by Gannett, Broad, or another prospective owner would include a plan to continue that arrangement, though continuing circulation and advertising declines might place the San Diego daily's ultimate survival in jeopardy.

In the meantime, another Jacobs-tied news-and-opinion operation, the nonprofit Voice of San Diego, is taking a positive perspective on the billionaire’s park plan.

Cabrillo Bridge

Cabrillo Bridge

"If the project goes forward, there will be more open space for park visitors and more centralized parking without sacrificing the western Cabrillo Bridge entrance that museums believe is crucial for their audiences," says a July 21 post.

"While some support the plan simply because it provides more access to the plazas for pedestrians, the museums believe all elements — clearing the plazas, increasing parking in the park’s core and maintaining the bridge entrance — are vital."

Adds a note at the bottom of the item: "Disclosure: Irwin Jacobs is a major donor to Voice of San Diego."

Gavin Newsom

Gavin Newsom

Jacobs’s use of campaign and charity contributions to have his way in municipal debate has long been of concern to critics, who cite as one example a March 2012 donation of $12,000 to the reelection campaign of California Lt. Gov. Gavin Newsom by Jacobs and wife Joan.

A month earlier, Newsom had fired off a letter to the state's historic preservation chief, San Diego architect Wayne Donaldson, warning him to halt his criticism of the Jacobs park proposal.

"As the State Historic Preservation Officer I hope that you will consider these arguments, withdraw your comments, and begin to work in collaboration with the leaders of the Plaza de Panama project," Newsom wrote Donaldson on February 15, 2012. "Should you need help making contact with the project team I stand ready to assist."

Milford Wayne Donaldson

Milford Wayne Donaldson

In a February 3 memo to the National Park Service, Donaldson had questioned the Jacobs proposal, saying, "At great risk is the Cabrillo Bridge, its setting, the spatial relationships and special elements which define the National Historic Landmark District of Balboa Park,' noting that the project world involve "Demolition of 82 feet of the Cabrillo Bridge."

In addition, Donaldson wrote, "the introduction of a new two-lane roadway that bisects the historic core into two spaces, something that has never existed and was never designed to be. This is achieved by excavating a very large ravine containing the road, bisecting the historic central mesa, which includes the addition of retaining walls and fills significant parts of Palm Canyon, altering the historic space and land forms irreversibly."

Continued Donaldson, "The road continues into a three-story partially underground parking lot that abuts directly against the historic Spreckels Organ Pavilion. This parking lot will then have numerous new buildings on top along with grass areas.”

He added, “It irreversibly changes the relationship of the organ pavilion to the landscape and severely diminishes its prominent setting." Donaldson subsequently lost his job.

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Disappointed by Union-Tribune editor/publisher Jeff Light's tronc-y remarks about his "legacy media company" (read: old-time newspaper) and its quest for "original content" (read: news stories researched and written by reporters) delivered on many "platforms" (read: probably not newsprint but on-line including computers, i-pads, i-phones, i-watches and using lots of videos.) Pathetic.

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