Editorialists employed by Chicago's Tribune Publishing, otherwise known in media circles as the newspaper chain from hell, have wasted no time condemning the U.S. Justice Department for killing Tribune's putative deal to seize control of 98 percent of Southern California's print media.
In Florida, the Sun-Sentinel said the aborted takeover was "a deal that would have let our parent company create regional economies of scale, while giving more readers the kind of quality journalism offered by the Los Angeles Times.”
In San Diego, the complaint was virtually identical.
Intoned a March 20 Union-Tribune editorial, "It’s absurd that the Department of Justice prevented Tribune Publishing, which owns The San Diego Union-Tribune, the Los Angeles Times and other daily newspapers, from buying the Orange County Register and the Riverside Press-Enterprise on the grounds it created a newspaper monopoly.
"The Justice Department argued this might drive up prices for readers and advertisers. It also might have meant higher journalism standards and consolidations that could have preserved more journalism jobs. We’ll never know."
Unmentioned by the paper was San Diego's own unfortunate history with newspaper monopolies, involving the fate of the North County Times, the once-proud Escondido daily taken over by then–Union-Tribune owner Douglas Manchester in 2012.
By April 2013, Manchester, who paid $11.95 million to buy the paper from Lee Enterprises Inc. of Davenport, Iowa, had obliterated easy access to the publication’s online archives, used by many to keep track of the byzantine political activities of big-money real estate developers.
The Republican real estate mogul shortly shuttered the North County Times and also folded the Californian, a Temecula-based operation purchased along with the Times.
"Upon our acquisition of the [North County Times] and Californian, the U-T fielded extensive research that showed that the U-T was respected for its coverage and quality and was favored over the other brands,” announced Manchester associate John Lynch in a May 29, 2013, U-T story.
“The fact is that the financial model for both the Californian and the North County Times was broken. We are interested in creating — and maintaining — healthy, sustainable multiplatform products for years to come.”
Multiple layoffs ensued, and the same month, as first reported here, Manchester sold the suddenly defunct newspaper's Escondido headquarters to a charter school for a reported $7 million, using state charter school bonds to raise the cash.
Last May Manchester exited the newspaper business, unloading the Union-Tribune, minus its real estate and printing presses, to Tribune Publishing for a tidy $85 million, in a sale unchallenged by federal regulators.
More layoffs occurred and the new owner revealed it would move all printing work to Los Angeles, with the paper to be trucked south from L.A. from thenceforth on, virtually guaranteeing no one else could take control of the paper without making an uneconomical investment in new printing arrangements.
Tribune Publishing's tumultuous management history, including last year's sudden firing of Los Angeles Times and Union-Tribune publisher Austin Beutner, a longtime Clintonite and onetime business associate of L.A. billionaire Democrat Eli Broad, also continues to haunt the company and its newspapers.
Michael Ferro, Tribune's latest chieftain, is said to want to hold on to the California papers, spurning any notion of selling them off to Broad, who has long wanted to run them.
But last week's surprise decision by the Obama administration’s Justice Department to up-end Tribune's L.A. monopoly game has revived talk that Broad — who has given millions of dollars to Obama and other Democrats — may get another crack at the deal.
"No one knows for certain what the Los Angeles Times and San Diego Union-Tribune are worth. Based on interest from rich local buyers like billionaire Eli Broad (which may have been a rumor), the papers could go for a price nearing the $250 million Amazon.com Inc.’s Jeff Bezos paid for the Washington Post,” reported 24/7 Wall Street.
"That leaves the best way for Tribune Publishing to improve shareholder value as a sale of the Los Angeles Times and San Diego Union-Tribune. The yield would be worth more than Tribune Publishing’s market cap."
Tribune continues to say the properties are not in play.